Exercise 1 (b) – Objectivity in Documentary Photography


The Oxford Dictionary defines objectivity as existing independently of perception which, in the context of photography, could be interpreted as an object, or the subject matter, must exist independently of the subject’s perception of it.

In Photography (1) Stephen Bull offers a definition of objectivity and subjectivity. He says that photographic objectivity is when the object, or subject matter, in front of the camera produces the photograph whereas photographic subjectivity is when the photographer, the subject behind the camera, has produced the photograph.

An alternative definition is provided by John Szarkowski in Gerry Badger’s The Genius of Photography (2). Szarkowski, then the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, divided photographs into two groups. Windows and mirrors. A window photograph is when the subject-matter is of primary importance whilst a mirror photograph exists mainly to reflect the photographer’s viewpoint.

If asked to choose between the last two ideas my instinct would be to accept Szarkowski’s view but only because he includes words such as “primarily” and “mainly” which accepts that this is not a binary question. Badger points out that most photos are both windows and mirrors and, if we for the time being exclude photographs taken by automatic processes such as surveillance or speed cameras, one might argue that all photographs are mirrors, the photographer is not a passive machine operator, they at minimum chose where to point the camera.

Bull, Badger and Szarkowski are all inside the world of photography so it is interesting to look outside that world and seek the view of Susan Sontag, a human rights activist, writer and film director. In Regarding the Pain of Others (3), Sontag takes a more literal view when leading on from talking about the role of the photograph in the 1920s. She suggests that “photographs had the advantage of uniting two contradictory features. Their credentials of objectivity were inbuilt yet they always had necessarily, a point of view.” She continues by offering different ways of describing this duality – they are “both objective record and personal testimony” – “faithful copy of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality.”

Sontag’s perspective offers something of a compromise and the recognition of duality, which Badger also seems to support, appears to be the important factor. Philosophy is not for the faint hearted but as we are primarily looking at documentary photography at this point it is hard to suggest an example where the photographer has created an image that is devoid of their own perception of the subject matter. The photographer may set out to faithfully record Sontag’s moment of reality but they will make decisions regarding inclusion and exclusion, angle, perspective and exposure that by their very nature, make the photograph a personal testimony.

Can Picture’s Ever be Objective ?

Before pursuing the question of the degree of subjectivity or objectivity it makes sense to answer the original question. If, we exclude scientific, mechanical or automatic photography which I am placing outside the realm of this particular debate, then there is little doubt that, whether we apply Bull, Szarkowski or Sontag’s rule, no photograph can be objective. The image is at minimum selective of its subject matter and thereby a subjective point of view for all the reasons discussed above.

So the question becomes whether this lack of absolute objectivity means that the viewer can never trust a photograph. Is the lack of objectivity also a lack of truth?

Having established that the audience cannot assume objectivity because, to a greater or lesser extent, the photographer has imposed their viewpoint on the subject matter we are left to judge the extent of that subjectivity and how much it corrupts the depiction of reality by considering the context that surrounds the image.


As pointed out by Graham Clark (4) photographs are not independent objects, their meaning, or least the meaning we derive from reading them, is dependent on a wide range of historical, cultural, social and technical contexts. But when judging the degree of objectivity using context we recognise that context is created and exists at multiple levels and is added to and thereby changes as a photograph moves from its initial capture through to our seeing it. Even the passage of time in itself can alter context, a raw image left untouched on my computer for ten years will typically mean something different to me now than when I took it, its context has changed without the file being changed, moved or touched.

There may be important context that  impacts objectivity even before the photograph is taken. Roger Fenton is often described as the first war photographer but his photographs of the Crimean war are more notable for what they exclude rather than their subject matter. Fenton was commissioned to photograph the war by the British Government as a reaction to the negative journalistic reports appearing in the Times (Sontag (3)), the War Office forbade him from photographing the dead, maimed or sick so his photographs are of a men’s club on tour, officers by their tents, soldiers posed by their guns. It is suggested that his most famous war photograph, The Valley of Death, was both staged and taken some distance from the scene of the charge of the Light Brigade (Badger p.26 (2)). This, then, becomes the first in a long line of iconic war photographs that we know or suspect to be posed; Joe Rosenthal’s Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima is an obvious example and much debate still surrounds the authenticity of Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier.

Government control of war photographers has a long tradition starting with Fenton and continuing today. Methods have varied from refusing to provide accreditation to Don McCullin (or any other experienced war photographer) to cover the Falklands War (5) to embedding journalists with the troops in the Gulf War and in Afganistan so they were, at least partly controlled, and in the hope that they would develop a bond with the fighting troops that would colour their reporting.

Having understood whether the photographer is independent or potentially restricted or controlled is the first in a long list of contextual tests that we could apply to an image to enable us to judge the degree of objectivity. The only way that the original context can come near to being fixed is if we see the photograph as the photographer intended us to see it and with his or her context firmly attached. Clark argues that much of Lewis Hine’s work falls into this category as he documented his subject-matter in relation to wider social and cultural questions. I would suggest that Jones Griffith’s Vietnam Inc. is a better example with its original context fixed by presenting the narrative as a photo and literary essay, Griffiths’ thoughts are embedded as captions and essays.

However, having the photographer’s original context fixed in place only partially affects the context that we bring to viewing the image. A 1912 factory owner would read Lewis Hine’s photographs of textile mills and the women who worked in them quite differently that Hine would have done at the time or than we would read them today. So the viewer is adding to and changing the context. If we accept that social and cultural influences are always changing then, the context of a photograph is always changing and, if that is part of the way we judge objectivity, then the degree of objectivity also has the potential to change.

Moving forward from the photographer there may be several layers of human intervention between the point of capture and our viewing. Rather than discussing each in turn I have drawn a simple flow chart that summarises some of the ways the photograph’s context can be changed before we see it. (See fig. 01)

Fig. 01 Layers of Editing

Fig. 01 Layers of Editing

The key point is that we read a photograph through a layer of context that we bring to the viewing, we will be aware of the context in which we see the image and might have a sense of the context in which it was taken, but, in between these two events, there are potentially many layers of editing and manipulation that could impact the way we see that photograph.

Clark points out that at the simplest level whether the photograph is printed in colour or monochrome, rectangular, square or round, large or small, high quality or poor quality changes its context. If we combine all of these factors, all the levels at which the photograph can acquire additional context we can see why Clark argues that the “fixed image is subject to a continuous state of transformation and metamorphosis.”

We are therefore left judging objectivity based on a moving object which sounds a poor solution.

Documentary Photography and Objectivity

The easiest way to solve this conundrum is to discard the idea of testing for objectivity. If we accept that no documentary photograph can be absolutely objective we find ourselves on safer ground by recognising that the photograph is therefore subjective, it is a personal point of view and should be read as such.

The documentary photograph is akin to the editorial column in a broadsheet paper, it is an opinion. If we now apply the test of acquired context and consider how the photograph travelled from its capture to be before us we can consider the degree of subjectivity. This is a more comfortable test, it feels easier to ask ourselves the question, do I trust Koudelka’s depiction of the “Seperation Barrier” in The Wall (7) or not?

However, this is a placebo rather than a solution, because the answer to the question is probably based on whether we agree with the photographer’s opinion or, worse, whether they are offering an opinion that we shared before even seeing the photograph.

Bull runs the argument that if, as Grierson said,  “documentary photography is the creative treatment of reality” then what is left of reality after it has been creatively treated? The answer might be that there is as much left as we wish to believe.



(1) Bull, Stephen. (2010) Photography. Kindle Edition published in the Taylor and Francis e-Library 2009. London: Routledge

(2) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(3) Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. Penguin Books 2004 Kindle edition. London, Penguin Books

(4) Clarke, Graham. 1997) The Photograph. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

(5) McCullin, Don. (1990) Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography. Vintage edition 1992. London: Vintage.

(6) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.

(7) Koudelka, Josef. (2007) Josef Koudelka: Thames & Hudson Photofile with an introduction by Bernard Cuau. London: Thanks and Hudson.


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