Critical Debates Around Photojournalism – Rosler and Hine


Martha Rosler’s 1981 essay  In, Around and Afterthoughs (1) is one of those essays that, once you start researching it, is widely quoted, analysed, dissected and regurgitated in one form and another, so like reading Camera Lucida (2), considering her views is part of the right of passage for students of photography.

Professor Rosler is a  highly respected practicing artist (see note i ) and academic (3) so whilst, I disagreed with many of the views she expressed in this essay, it was written from a position of great knowledge and, no doubt, careful consideration and cannot be dismissed lightly. At its core, there is an argument that too much so-called social documentary photography and photojournalism is about the photographer rather than the subject matter and with this I agree. My strongest points of disagreement are in her examples of, what she sees as, self serving photographers and reformers and her positioning of social documentary within a political framework.

The Role of Social Documentary Photography

Rosler’s essay focuses in on a single aspect of the work of some of the best known social documentarists, one might argue that she is mostly talking about the first word “social” to the exclusion of the second “documentarists”. Whilst, I do not intend to linger this point I believe that it is important to recognise that the work of John Thomson in the 1870s or Lewis Hine in the 1920s have provided us, and future generations, with an unrivalled and often intimate view of the people that came before us. The photographers who took their cameras onto the streets and into homes and factories in the years before amateur photography began to document the minutiae of everyday life have provided us with important historical documents that represent a visual history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This aspect of social documentary photography continues to be the motivation of many contemporary practitioners. As a photojournalist Eugene Richards is primarily driven by bringing attention to his subject matter, pointing out what is happening, prompting a dialogue but he also sees the need to provide a record of history as one of the reasons behind his work (6). This duality of purpose, increasing awareness now and documenting history for the future, is central to documentary photography. Alexis de Tocqueville (10) said that “history is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies”, part of the role of the photojournalist and documentarist is to record the  history to help future generations avoid endless repetition of our mistakes.

Martha Rosler’s Essay

The essay should be placed in its historical context. The 80s in America and Britain was a period in which the electorate appeared to reject liberalism and the growth of state control and spending. On both sides of the Atlantic governments came to power by promoting the concept of increased upward social mobility, government support for those that helped themselves, reductions in welfare spending and a bristling militaristic stance towards communism. It was a “help yourself” society and Rosler hits the nail on the head when she says that there was a mood that the “poor may be poor through lack of merit”. Politically there was a general shift to the right and in the USA which had no political left wing in the first place, this meant a shift to a form of extreme conservatism. The Reagan years were a period when the  “social agenda” included a Federal ban on abortion, and the legalisation of organised school prayer (11).

Rosler’s fundamental question is whether social documentary photographers up until and at this time intended to reform society or were they engaged in voyeurism, exploitation and self promotion whilst supporting the establishment and its capitalist system. More radically she argues that the reformist photographers and the charities and institutions that used their work  provided an easy get-out-clause for the rich and powerful. A little charity keeps the poor neatly in their place.

She saw the down-and-out residents of the Bowery as victims of the camera, the “Nikon set” who were pursuing victim photography whilst engaging in “tourism, voyeurism, trophy hunting and careerism.”  It is here that I find most common ground. There is today, and clearly was then, a disturbing trend for photojournalists, established documentarists and amateurs to dip in and out of subjects that offer strong images that can be published in magazines, books and, in our era, on-line. In my research on narrative in TAoP I was strongly influenced by a lecture given by Stuart Freedman in which he highlighted the amount of contemporary  photojournalism that is based on poor research and a limited understanding of the subject (5). The increase in the Media’s use of citizen journalists arguably increases the risk of unethical and poorly researched, visual narratives entering the public domain.

As a student of street photography I am disturbed by the plethora of gritty black and white documentary photos of the homeless that appear on-line and this raises the question of whether these photographers see themselves as part of a social documentary movement or just that this subject-matter offers “great” photos. Finding the moral divide between exploitation and art has been, and will continue to be, a challenge and in our age of instant entry and rapid exit of stories from the news and the ability to shoot and publish in seconds the opportunity to exploit, sensationalise and trivialise is greater than ever before.

I move apart from Rosler when considering her statements regarding reformers and the photographers she selects as examples. Her bold statement that “no political battles have been fought and won by someone for someone else” appears to sweep aside in a dozen words the work of generations of social reformers including William Wilberforce (abolition of the slave trade), the Earl of Shaftesbury (protection of children), Octavia Hill (working class housing) and Robert Owen (social and industrial welfare). It also ignores artists such as Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew (see note ii ) who, through their writing, opened the eyes of the Victorian public to the dire conditions of the urban poor and whose work is generally considered to have supported the call for radical change.

Another of her targets is Eugene and Aileen Smith’s work highlighting the plight of the victims of the Chisso chemical company in Minamata which I looked at in TAoP. It is not clear whether she is disappointed by their work and motivations or just at odds with their publisher who, she tells us, focussed on Eugene Smith to the exclusion of his wife  and their subject-matter. Are we to ignore that the victims themselves believed that the Smiths played a fundamental role in their successful campaign to be compensated? Can we look at the photographs (9) and believe that they felt no empathy, no sympathy, no anger and that this really just about rejuvenating his flagging career rather than drawing international attention to the victims? I am not cynical enough to see their work in that light.

On a number of occasions, as in the case of Minamata, Rosler highlights the failings of publishers and uses this as evidence of the failure of concerned photographers. To sustain this argument we must believe that these two groups have common motivations and objectives. It is clear that the overall context of a magazine or newspaper and the context within which the picture is then presented can, at times, overwhelm the original intent of the photographer. Many photographers have self published to ensure that their message is neither distorted not misappropriated because they understand that the traditional relationship between a publisher and the journalist in the field has the potential for the journalist to be misrepresented.

Perhaps my difficulty with the overall tone of this essay is that Rosler expects social documentarists and photojournalists to have saintly qualities and to work within a broad geopolitical agenda than fits the writer’s political  views. Being careerist is a failing in Rosler’s eyes, so we are therefore being asked to ignore the  work of people like Sebastiao Salgado, one of the most successful and important humanist photographers of our generation. Salgado believes that “a picture combined with a system of information” can bring about social change (6). It is because of his successful career and resultant high profile that his photos reach a wide audience and can be used to support social and political reform. However, he would probably agree with some of Rosler’s concerns, he too condemns photo tourism and believes that if we arrive, take photos and depart we are returning with the same ideas we came with, and he, like Freedman, stresses the importance of understanding and building empathy with the subject. His photographs of people are too close, too engaged, too sympathetic to believe that he is exploiting his subject for his own ends.

Rosler directs her criticism at the social documentarists who, in her view, did no more than moralise whilst providing support to the established order of class and distribution of wealth. One assumes that she is calling for a more revolutionary approach to this genre of photography, although it is not clear from her essay how these new-age revolutionaries would approach their subject matter.

Lewis Hine 1874 – 1940 

Rather than considering the whole genre I want to focus in on the work of Lewis Hine, one of Rosler’s targets,  whose socially motivated photography is considered, by some other scholars, to have directly impacted public opinion in the US.

Lewis Hine was a pioneer of early documentary photography, an educated man, originally a teacher who became interested in photography as a way for his students to record the world around them. Jonathan L. Doherty (see note iii ) in the introduction  to Women at Work, a collection of 153 of Hine’s photos (12), classifies Hine’s work as “reform photos” that chart 35 years of American history thus bringing together the two facets of documentary photography. Hine was a prolific photographer who completed many major projects including the documenting of immigrants at Ellis Island in 1905/06, life in Pittsburgh, the slums of Washington, New York and Chicago and child labour.  Unfortunately he was a not a prolific writer and apart from the captions written on the back of his prints there are only a few letters between him and his various employers that shed any light on his thoughts. As a consequence we are left to judge his motivations on the evidence of his photographs, his captions and the company he kept.

The earliest photograph in Women at Work was taken in 1907 just after Hine had finished his work at Ellis Island. He had been hired by the National Child Labor Committee who were researching take-home piecework in the tenements of New York and soon after by Paul Kellog, editor of the Pittsburg Survey (16 & note vi ), to document life in that city. The last photograph was taken in 1938 when he was working for an institution looking at the impact of new technology on workers (see note iv ). These photos were taken as part of different projects for different organisations and there is no evidence that Hine intended to publish them as a series similar to Men at Work which he published in 1932. But, we do know that Hine supported the right for women to work – “as in many other activities war necessity proved how excellently dependable they are” is a caption written on a photograph of female postal workers. He also saw value in the role of housewives which is a concept not universally recognised today, let alone in the 1920s, he wrote as another caption “The home maker deserves recognition as one of our workers”.

The case for Hine’s liberal values is best made by his pictures. The early pictures in Women at Work pick up where his immigrant series left off. There are striking portraits of immigrant women, street scenes and home interiors. The context is dirty streets, cramped and poorly lit interiors, frayed washing hanging from the ceilings and a general backdrop of poverty but the women are portrayed as physically strong, hard working, fighting for a better life, engaged, often with their children, in monotonous piece work. Hine has been accused of putting a pretty face on society but Alison Nordstrom (13) one of the editors of Lewis Hine (see note v  ) believes that he wanted to “humanise those at most risk of losing their humanity.” Hine had an artistic approach to his photography (see note vii )and was not bound by the modern conventions of documentary work so his subjects are often posed. Ken Johnson of the New York Times (14) sees this as irrelevant because Hine saw the literal truth as being “less important than the symbolic impact of the image.” The point being that he was not just a documentarist, he had a message, an idea and the use of symbolism or the metaphor were part of the way in which he communicated. Johnson describes his work as “illustrated sociology”.

Women at Work is generally presented in a chronological sequence so we are able to see his work and his relationship with the subject evolve over an extended period of time. The women remain central to the pictures and are exclusively presented in a positive and sympathetic light, Hine saw workers as heroic and this was clearly not a view that he reserved for the male of the species. We see an increasing involvement with technology and, unlike his children at work photos where the machines dwarf the small children, here we see women in control, concentrating on taking command of processes and machines. Some of the work is menial, women scrubbing floors, but we also see interaction with high technology as well as designers and artists.

Hine’s became increasingly interested in the relationship between people, work and machines and by the end of his career was beginning to document the trades and crafts that the machines were displacing. Judith Gutman believes that he wanted to show that “humans will transcend and transform the industrial landscape.” (15) He was a humanist who believed in people, he could see the strength in the eyes of an Italian immigrant textile worker, could see her value, that she was ready and able to contribute to American society at a time when there was great concern about the flood of European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.

He saw that the new world was being built on child labour, poorly paid piecework, the exploitation of immigrants and immigrant children and the captions on his photographs highlight poor pay, long hours, 3 year olds working until eight at night, dirty children living in poverty and the need for whole families to contribute income. The fact that his captions are brief and to the point underlines the importance of the few words he uses and shows that he wanted his audience to understand the social issues behind the photos. According to John D. Roberts (16) Hine said:

“There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show things that had to be appreciated.”

This very neatly sums up Hine’s work. He highlighted the working and living conditions of the American urban poor but, at the same time, he placed the American worker on a pedestal, a heroic figure who deserved respect. It is of particular note that he did this for both men and women in what was a male dominated society. Nordstrom is quite clear that his photographs of child labour directly impacted public opinion leading to changes in the law and that throughout his career he put a human face on what the American middle and wealthy classes saw as problems. Charities today recognise that problems must be humanised if they are to be solved, Hine was an early adopter of this form of propaganda.

A final rebuttal to Rosler’s dismissal of Hine’s work might be that, if he was careerist, he was clearly not very good at it. He had so much difficulty making a living from photography that he was unable to keep up with his mortgage payments and lost his home in the spring of 1940 dying in extreme poverty 11 months later.

Notes to Text

i ) Rosler’s own photographic work is complex and challenging and deserves much closer study and thought than I was able to apply at this time. The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (4) is particularly relevant given The Bowery is repeatedly used as an example of an over-socially-documented place in the essay.

ii) It is interesting to note that Derrick Price writing in Liz Well’s Photography (7) cites Mayhew as a a major influence upon John Thomson (8), one of the earliest British street photographers who was anxious to demonstrate the ability of photography to guarantee authenticity, which is debate for another time. Thomson, a Scot by birth, lived from 1837 until 1921 and traveled as far afield as Singapore, Malaya, Sumatra, Siam, Cambodia, Ceylon and India which in itself is remarkable. He is particularly remembered for his photographs of the people of London which were taken in the late 1870s providing a remarkable record of the streets of the capital.

iii ) I have been unable to find any information on Jonathan L. Doherty. As well as editing the Women at Work (12) collection he also wrote Lewis Wicks Hine’s Interpretive Photography: The Early Six Projects. Both books are published in association with George Eastman House and my guess is that he was an employee, perhaps a curator at this institution.

iv ) This organisation went by the snappy title of “The Works Progress Administration’s National Research Project on Reemployment Opportunities and Recent Changes in Industrial Tecchniques.”

v) Lewis Hine was published in 2012 by Distributed Art Publishers. Alison Nordstrom is one of two writers who contributed to this book. It includes a facsimile of Men at Work as well as many other photographs. I have not seen this book so have not included it as a source.

vi) Paul Kellog (1879 – 1958) was a journalist and social reformer who edited an influential magazine “Survey” which studied and interpreted data on a wide range of issues including racism, health, education, unemployment and international relations.

vii) Judith Guttman (17) says that Hine wanted to be part of the Farm Security Administration project (FSA) (18), a project that employed around 30 photographers to document the poverty in rural America. Roy Stryker, the head of the photo unit, turned down his application because he saw him as too much of an artist.



(2) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

(6) Jaeger, Anne-Celine. (2010) Image Makers Image Takers. London: Thames and Hudson

(7) Price, Derrick (1996) Surveyors and Surveyed published in Photography: A Critical Introduction edited by Liz Wells. Fourth Edition 2009. Abingdon: Routledge.

(12) Hine, Lewis W. (1981) Women at Work: 153 Photographs by Lewis W. Hine, Edited by Jonathan L. Doherty. New York: George Eastman house in association with Dover Publications.


(1) Rosler, Martha (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughs (on documentary photography) (accessed 2014 at the Everyday Archive) –

(3) The European Graduate School. Martha Rosler – Biography (accessed 2014) –

(4) Rosler, Martha – the artist’s website (accessed 2014) –

(5) Freedman, Stuart. (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism –

(8) The Gentle Author (2011) John Thomson’s Street Life in London (accessed 2014) –

(9) Smith, W. Eugene (1971) Minamata vs The Chisso Corporation (accessed 2014 at Magnum Photos) –

(10) de Tocqueville, Alexis. All About Alexis de Tocqueville (accessed 2014) –

(11) The New York Times. (1988) Reagan’s Social Issues: Gone but not Forgotten. (accessed 2014) –

(13) Nordstrom, Alison (2012) Lewis Hine: The Child Labour Photos That Shamed America (accessed 2014 at BBC News Magazine) –

(14) Johnson, Ken (2013) Huddled Masses, Studiously Eyed: Lewis Hine’s Photographs in Two Shows at I.C.P (accessed 2014 at The new York Times) –

(15) Roberts, John D. (2014) Things That Had to be Corrected Lewis Hines (accessed 2014 at NY Photo Review) –

(16) The Social Welfare history Project. Paul Underwood Kellog. (accessed 2014) –

(17) Kempf, Jean (2013) Interview with Judith Gutman (accessed 2014 at Transatlantica) – 

(18) Library of Congress. Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information Black and White Negatives (accessed 2014) –




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1 Response to Critical Debates Around Photojournalism – Rosler and Hine

  1. Pingback: An empty urban landscape | The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia

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