Avoiding The Fraught Enterprise

Jan Sobolewski - Suicide

Jan Sobolewski – Suicide, from the series Invisible People – Steve Middlehurst 2015

I have been researching staged photography by reviewing the usual suspects; Crewdson (here), Sherman (here), Wall (here) and diCordia. This quartet is intriguing, in part because their work is so different yet linked by premeditated staging and the appropriation of cinematic processes and aesthetics.  The extent to which the cinematic references influence how we interpret their work as opposed to them being what diCorcia describes as “another element in the compositional array” (1) is open to question but it does lead to what Sharon Boothroyd (2) describes as the “visual allure” of their work. She was only referring to Crewdson when using that phrase but it remains appropriate because all of these practitioners produce visually compelling photographs which, in part, are a result of adopting those cinematic aesthetics, popular cinema having long since mastered the art of visual allure. However, the real debate that Boothroyd opens is whether Crewdson’s work has a sufficient link to reality and contains the depth of meaning that she finds in Wall and diCorcia.

Mimic Jeff Wall 1982

Mimic – Jeff Wall 1982

This question was in my mind as I looked at the aforementioned quartet and whilst I was able to justify, at least to myself, why I responded positively to Crewdson (here), and concluded that there was value in, what I saw as, photography as entertainment, I did look at Wall and diCorcia in a different way appreciating that beneath the gloss there was arguably more substance, a firmer grip on reality and, at times, social commentary. However, that raises a different question; why stage a scene that investigates racism as in Jeff Wall’s 1989 Arrest or his 1982 Mimic when he could have photographed the reality of the same issue? The answer may, in part, lie in Susie Linfield’s (3) idea: “The depiction of powerless, vulnerable people is a fraught enterprise that can easily veer into condescension.”

Which, in a round-about way, took me back to Martha Rosler’s In, Around and Afterthoughs (4) (discussed here), an essay questioning the practice, ethics and motivations of documentary photographers and Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s indictment that documentary photography commits a “double act of subjugation” (20) by exploiting people who are already suppressed by society (discussed here). When first considering Rosler’s views I was torn between fundamental disagreement with her assertion that documentary photographers not only fail to achieve social change but support the established social order and agreeing with her argument that too many self-appointed documentarists are engaged in what she calls the “Nikon set’s” pursuit of of victim photography by engaging in “tourism, voyeurism, trophy hunting and careerism.”

These arguments resonate with many photographers; where is the acceptable line between documentation and exploitation? Is there a way to comment on social issues without committing that double act of subjugation? And, is part of the motivation for staged photography to avoid what Allan Sekula called “the pornography of the direct representation of misery” ? (3)

Contemporary practitioners have responded in different ways to avoid their work being classified as what Susie Linfield (3) points out is now known as “war porn”, “development pornography” or “social pornography”, a list to which we might add “street porn”, the ubiquitous character studies of the homeless and underprivileged. First and foremost the traditional documentarist or photojournalist continues to apply a combination of researched or experienced subject knowledge and technical excellence to dignify their subject. Late or post photography uses the location after the fact as a symbol of the fact itself and as I have already suggested staged photography can present an real issue in a dramatised form.

Knowledge and Dignity

A criticism often laid at the door of photojournalists  in particular but also of documentarists such as Sebastião Salgado is that their photographs are too appealing, too beautiful;  Andy Grundberg (5) amongst others argues that “glamorous” photojournalism, that is a desire on the part of the photojournalist to have credence as a creative photographer,  “becomes simply another genre in the realm of art, dysfunctional but beautiful.” (i) . When discussing this issue in the past (ii) I have found agreement with Alan Freedman’s view (6) that photojournalism should be “as rigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution”; in a  world where we are overwhelmed by images, the photojournalist or social documentarist must first capture the attention of the viewer, and this requires not just a depth of meaning based on a real understanding of the subject but a visual allure that goes beyond instant appeal. Paul Seawright (7) believes that whilst the photojournalist seeks an obvious, simple, easily read and understood meaning the artist, looks to create a more complex and ambiguous meaning that asks for an investment by the viewer. Grundberg is drawing attention to the fact that the line between the photojournalist and artist has become blurred so Seawright’s argument may now have different implications.

Mark Duden argues this point with great eloquence in his essay (8) on Luc Delahaye, a man who has evolved from photojournalist to artist. Durden suggests that “beauty and the aesthetic cannot be so easily dismissed” and gives the example of Don McCullin who believed that the process of taking the best photograph possible, editing, selecting, framing and eventually exhibiting it within the context of an exhibition was a way of underlining the dignity of his subjects. Durden also quotes Sebastião Salgado, a man who often lives for extended periods of time with his subject, as justifying his approach of working with “the best composition and most beautiful light” as a way to imbue his images with “beauty and nobility” and to show his respect the subject. These three practitioners, radically different in terms of specific subject, approach and aesthetic all talk of dignifying their subjects, not objectifying them as examples of an issue but respecting them as individuals that the viewer can identify with.

Current events around the northern shores of the Mediterranean have reopened discussion on the ability of a single image to change the course of public opinion. Ian Jack, writing in the Guardian this week (9), finds common ground with Salgado arguing that by naming Aylan Kurdi, the small boy tragically drowned off the coast of Turkey, the press has taken a step towards helping their audience to identify with the child, to think of him like ourselves, which is undoubtably a required step in the process of generating real empathy. Only time will tell whether the photographs of Aylan Kurdi will have a lasting impact on public opinion and result in a meaningful response from that most perfect barometer of the public mood, the professional politician.

The Terror of War Nick Ut 1972

The Terror of War – Nick Ut 1972

Some elements of the media were quick to make comparison between Aylan Kurdi and Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Price winning photograph of napalm victim Kim Phuc which is now seen as playing a significant role in having changed American public opinion towards the Vietnam war. However, there are very obvious differences. Firstly there is no single photograph of Aylan that we will all remember, different news media ran different images ranging from the little boy lying face down in the surf to his body being carried and obscured from view by a policeman, some publishers pixellated the boy’s face. I suggest that it is not any one of these photographs that has impacted public opinion, the image of the policeman carrying the child is ambiguous in a way that Nick Ut’s unforgettable image never was, it is a combination of whichever photograph we saw, the father’s story, the startling normality of the child’s clothing and the latterly published snapshot of a happy little boy, the removal of otherness and foreignness, that has stirred so much emotion.

Ian Jack points out that there is also a difference in aesthetics; the images that are generally believed to have radically impacted public opinion at the time and that have stayed in our collective memory include the Kim Phuc image, McCullin’s photograph of a  starving albino Biafran boy, and I would add, Philip Jones Griffiths’ collection of Vietnam war images (discussed here); these were all taken by professionals, men who immersed themselves in their chosen subjects and who had the technical ability to capture brilliantly composed images, often in the most difficult of circumstances. This application of their skill and artfulness combined with a knowledge of the causal political and social forces that were the backdrop to their images are their way of paying respect to their subjects; only the most cynical observer could read the words of McCullin or Jones Griffiths and believe that they were engaging in “tourism, voyeurism, trophy hunting and careerism”.

An Albino Boy Begs in Biafra - Don McCullin 1970

An Albino Boy Begs in Biafra – Don McCullin 1970

Ut, McCullin and Jones Griffiths are part of an era of photojournalism that is long past, the American and British military never again allowed journalists the type of freedom they were able to exploit during the Vietnam war; in fact, McCullin was refused accreditation to cover the Falkland’s war and the war photographer post Vietnam has been embedded and controlled.

Other significant changes to that profession have come from improved communications, global networks, camera phones which have given rise to the “citizen journalist” and the live video feed straight to the news desk and onwards to our living rooms; McCullin’s starving child is more likely to be found by a film crew or snapped on an aid-worker’s iPhone and distributed on a charity’s Facebook page than to appear in a Sunday magazine; in the 21st century photojournalism has been subverted and photojournalists have been forced to reinvent themselves.

Luc Delahaye is one of those who have sought out and found a new path; as an award wining photojournalist working for magazines such as Newsweek he began working in parallel on personal documentary projects that eventually became the totality of his practice. Discarding the comparatively lightweight, manageable and thereby quick 35mm, the conventional tool of the photojournalist, be began to use more cumbersome and slow to operate large and medium format cameras. This shift in approach was part of a process that changed the context of his work, that separated him from the quick-fire world of photojournalism. It also enabled him to print and exhibit his work on a monumental scale more reminiscent of Andreas Gursky or Jeff Wall. This, he explains, distances him from the economies of the press photograph (8) and inserts his work into the context of exhibition art.

The nature of his equipment and overall approach has moved him further from the battlefield but whilst he believes that his intent, style and the end product has shifted his work from photojournalism to documentary art, his choice of subject matter blurs the line between the two . Taliban 2001, a panoramic photograph of a dead young man is in the collection of prestigious art museums and has been exhibited in several internationally recognised venues (iii) since being first shown at a private gallery in New York in 2003.

Taliban Soldier from "History" - Luc Delahaye

Taliban from “History” – Luc Delahaye 2001

It is indisputably a war photograph, if printed in the international news section of The Telegraph it would be seen as photojournalism but when exhibited as an 8 by 4ft (iv) chromogenic development print in an art gallery it is unquestionably transformed but there must be a question as to the completeness of that transformation. This ambiguity is not true of all the large scale work Delahaye has published in the last fifteen years; US Bombing on Taliban Positions 2001 which I saw at the Tate Conflict. Time. Photography exhibition earlier this year (12 & 13 & discussed here) exists more comfortably within a gallery, whilst representing war it is more subtle, detached from both the act and outcome of atrocity. Sean O’Hagen (14) makes a telling point in his review of the Tate New Documentary Forms exhibition which included several of Delahaye’s large scale photographs but excluded Taliban and other graphic images; Taliban’s inclusion would “have proved problematic when presented outside the context of an exhibition of war photography”; this statement, which rings true, shows that Delahaye has only partially achieved his detachment from war photography and photojournalism, his choice of subject matter still has a fundamental effect on how his work is classified.

Photographer unknown. Dead Confederate Soldier in Trench Beyond Cheveaux-de-frise, Petersburg, Virginia. 1965

Photographer unknown. Dead Confederate Soldier in Trench Beyond Cheveaux-de-frise, Petersburg, Virginia. 1965

A few weeks after writing this essay I was reading Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography (18) and was struck by the photograph reproduced above of a dead Confederate soldier taken by an unknown photographer in 1865 in Petersburg, Virginia. Talking not of this photograph which immediately brought Delahaye’s Taliban to mind, but of Mathew Brady’s similar photographs of the war dead the New York Times said “Mr Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war.” (18) As André Gide put it “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” (19)

McCullin and Delahaye were photojournalists in different wars and different eras but both men had to address the thorny subject of the fraught enterprise. McCullin, like Jones Griffiths, became physically and emotionally immersed in his subject and operated within a self imposed code of ethics. His responsibility to bring news of war and famine to his employers’ readers was balanced against the respectful treatment of his live and dead subjects, he saw them not as subject matter or information but as humans, recognising that it was as important to bring some element of dignity to the sacrifice made by a young Vietcong as it was to the death of a young American marine. Delahaye has said “the absence of dignity of the image necessarily leads to the absence of dignity of the subject of the image.”(8) Their technical and ethical approach was their way to reconcile the dehumanising nature of war with the need to show the public the acts that were, and are, carried out in their name.

Late Photography

In a series of essays written earlier in this course I discussed Late Photography at some length and used it as the basis for assignment 1. Those essays can be found at:

In the context of this essay the relevant conclusion to that research is that photographing the location of atrocity or social issues can be as powerful, if not at times more powerful, than direct photography of the event. It offers photographers a second and highly effective way of addressing the issues raised by the critics of victim photography.

Staged Photography

The third way, is perhaps the most subtle in terms of message and the most assessable in terms of aesthetics. Staged photography is firmly embedded in art photography and has none of the contradictions that exist in Delahaye’s work or the difficulties associated with defining late photography. As mentioned above, in the case of Crewdson, Wall or diCorcia, it has a visual appeal which seems appropriate on the gallery wall but not all staged photography has a sense of dramatised realism, some of its practitioners, such as AES&F or Tracey Moffat place their narratives within fantastic settings and Wang Qingsong uses plain or unrealistic, fabricated studio settings. diCorcia is arguably the most complex practitioner within the genre as, although he is usually exploring the social implication of urban spaces, his staging is often set like a trail trap to capture passing subjects.

Equally, not all staged photography is concerned with “traditional” social documentary subjects, for example, Gillian Wearing uses actors or, in the case of Signs, people she meets on the street to explore identity, inner thoughts and human relationships whereas Hannah Starkey explores, in her words “the psychological and physical space of an individual in contemporary society.” (15)

In the interests of investigating how staged photography can be used to explore sociopolitical subject matter in a way that avoids exploiting or subjugating the human subject I want to concentrate on the practitioners who create narrative tableaux that are strongly influenced by cinematic or theatrical aesthetics. As previously discussed (here) there are good reasons for appropriating the popular narrative form of the cinema; it is readily understood by an audience weaned on movies and television drama; it has developed a sophisticated and effective method of staging; and, it is a form, like theatre, that declares itself to be fictional without losing the ability to address social subjects.

Photography and truth have been engaged in a fractious relationship for most of the former’s history. On the one hand photography has been in and out of style as an art form as it has struggled to find an unique position where it is is not compared with or measured against the older visual arts whilst on the other hand it is seen as the truthful medium, the recorder of fact for everyone from archeologists to journalists to the police and law courts. Since its earliest days there has been an art or science debate and the question of truth has been a constant on both sides of the argument. It is surprising that after all this time we continue to concern ourselves with the question of truth as an imbedded characteristic of photography every photograph has to be audited for its presence. The moving image appears to have avoided this debate, we seem able to accept that the newsreel of yesteryear or the news package of 24 hour news is a quite different entity to the Hollywood film or the BBC historical drama despite their use of an identical technology; we instinctively know what to expect from each type of film; the news package should be accurate photojournalism, the Hollywood movie can distort reality to any extent and remain valid and the BBC historical drama needs to use the right sort of material for the actresses’ dresses but can insert 21st century social values into a historical setting without censure. In short, news must be accurate but drama has dramatic licence to bend the facts to suit the story. In between there is documentary film which we understand is fact but not wholly objective. Despite most people in the Western world and much of the rest of the world watching moving images every day we spend very little time debating any of these distinctions, we don’t need to, we instinctively understand the nuances.

Yet with photography we have some some difficulty in accepting it in a theatrical form despite it not being a new idea; Julia Margret Cameron was creating tableaux in the 1860s. Jeff Wall is asked why he stages his photographs (15), why not just work on the street? Perhaps surprisingly his answer is that he would if he had the right camera with him because many of his works are reconstructions of events that he has witnessed; this strikes as a glib answer given his investment of time, effort and resources into any given shot. However, this tends to suggest that Wall is not concerned with addressing the Rosler point of view, his staging is not an avoidance of victim photography. Wall is primarily a conceptual artist, his intent is to construct a work of art; Jane Ure-Smith (15) points out that he is more interested in form than content and he himself says of Mimic “I’m not sure I find political/social terms that interesting artistically” so the social comment is potentially incidental rather than being central.

Despite this revelation and remaining with Mimic it is relevant to identify why it could not be reportage or street photography and therefore why Wall’s commentary on racial prejudice would not be as eloquent if conveyed by means other than staged photography. As David Campany points out Wall “pursues levels of clarity and precision” that can only be achieved in a staged scenario, there is perfect composition, every object within the frame is intentionally included, the large format camera captures every detail and allows a precisely considered depth to the image. To my eye Wall has chosen and implemented, not found, the lighting in Mimic, the colour tone and the shadows of the three characters imply late afternoon but the cars in the street and building suggest the time is nearer mid-day; the three people act as if they are unaware of the camera which we know is a large and obvious piece of equipment so like the theatre and cinema we are being asked to suspend our belief to accept the drama is being played out in a self contained space with no audience, no camera, no world outside of the frame. This adoption of cinematic form subverts the norms of documentary photography where we view the frame as a division between the photograph and the rest of the world, here we are asked to isolate the narrative from anything outside of the frame with the connotation that this is fiction. Campany argues that this awkward sense of the scene being unnatural, that it is posed and, as Melissa Schwartz (17) puts it “just not right, something is wrong” becomes a strength; we are being informed of its fictional nature, that its meaning has been inserted and that the photograph can be interpreted as theatre. We understand that theatre and cinema can be simultaneously fictional and meaningful so we can view Mimic in this same way.

The fact that both Crewdson and Wall are first and foremost interested in creating art rather than pursuing a political agenda does not diminish the power of staged narrative photography to explore a sociopolitical issue. Wall’s commentary on racism in Mimic or his observation on war as seen in Dead Troops Talk is no less effective just because his main interest is the art of composition “the dance of colours and shapes” across the picture. He, and to a lesser degree Crewdson, have found a way to stage documentary that not only avoids the fraught enterprise but allows their work to be an art form with any of the contradictions inherent in Delahaye’s work.

Notes on text

(i) Specifically Grunberg said “They (the New Photojournalists) want their pictures to convey more complex and sophisticated meanings, of both a social and personal sort, and to this end they want to control the contexts in which their images are presented. They also want to receive recognition as creative photographers.” and “Taken off the page and folded into the museum, the New Photojournalism becomes simply another genre in the realm of art, dysfunctional but beautiful.” (4)

(ii) I have discussed the question of whether it is acceptable for photojournalism to be visually alluring on two previous occasions (here and here).

(iii) A limited search showed that this photograph is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the western United States, and has been exhibited at J. Paul Getty Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the UK National Media Museum and several others. 

(iv) 45 3/4 x 95 3/8 inches 

(v) The idea of being interpreted as theatre is important. In ancient Greece theatre the audience knew the role, status and character of the actors by the masks they wore, this concept remains contemporary in traditional Asian theatre even today; children instantly recognise the characters in Christmas pantomime from their dress and makeup; the Hollywood Westerns of the 40s and 50s used black and white hats and the distant beating of “red indian” drums in much the same way. By appropriating the forms of cinema and making it clear that his work is fictional and theatrical Wall accesses characters and gestures that we know how to recognise and interpret. Cindy Sherman did this to an even greater degree in Untitled Stills, by adopting the aesthetics of film noir her characters became instantly recognisable as types rather than as specific actresses.



(3) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

(8) Durden, Mark (2012) Documentary Pictorial: Luc Delahaye’s Taliban, 2001. Published within Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller and Jay Prosser (2012) London: Reaktion Books.

(13) Baker, Simon and Mavlian, Shoair (2014) Conflict. Time. Photography. London: Tate Enterprises.

(15) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.

(16) Campany, David (2008) Photography and Cinema. London: Reaktion Books

(18) Newhall, Beaumont (1982) The History of Photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art

(19) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.

(20) le Grange, Ashley. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Kindle edition. Oxford: Focal Press


(1) diCorcia, Philip-Lorca (1997) Reflections on Streetwork (accessed at Peter Baker 2.9.15) – http://peterbaker.org/reflections-on-streetwork/

(2) Boothroyd, Sharon (2012) Is it a case of style over substance in cinematic photography? (accessed at WEAreOCA 26.8.15) – http://weareoca.com/photography/gregory-crewdson-phillip-lorca-dicorcia-style-or-substance-in-cinematic-photography/

(4) Rosler, Martha (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughs (on documentary photography) (accessed 2014 at the Everyday Archive) – http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf

(5) Grunberg, Andy (1987) ART; PHOTOJOURNALISM LAYS CLAIM TO THE REALM OF ESTHETICS (accessed at the NY Times 4.9.15) – http://www.nytimes.com/1987/04/12/arts/art-photojournalism-lays-claim-to-the-realm-of-esthetics.html

(6) Freedman, Alan (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism (accessed at Editorial Photographers Uk and Ireland in 2013 and again 4.9.15) – http://www.epuk.org/the-curve/ethics-and-photojournalism

(7) Seawright, Paul (accessed 15/1/15 at Paul Seagrave’s website. Sectarian Murder – http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/

(9) Jack, Ian (2015) Can Images Change History? (accessed at The Guardian 4.9.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/04/images-aylan-kurdi-syria

(10) Delahaye, Luc. Solo Exhibitions of Luc Delahaye (accessed at Photography now 6.9.15) – http://photography-now.com/artist/luc-delahaye

(11) Delahaye, Luc (2010) Taliban (accessed at LACMA 5.9.15) – http://collections.lacma.org/node/206654

(12) Tate (2014) Conflict. Time. Photography (accessed at Tate 10.2.15) – http://www.tate.org.uk/about/press-office/press-releases/conflict-time-photography

(14) O’Hagen, Sean (2011) Luc Delahaye turns war photography into an uncomfortable art (accessed at The Guardian 6.9.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/aug/09/luc-delahaye-war-photography-art

(15) Ure-Smith, Jane (2014) New artistic directions for photographer Jeff Wall in Amsterdam (accessed at the Financial Times 6.9.15) – http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/47d5e1e2-9328-11e3-b07c-00144feab7de.html#ixzz2tb0DmaqQ

(17) Schwartz, Melissa (2011) Constructing the real: the New Photography of Crewdson, Gursky and Wall (accessed at University of Kentucky Uknowledge 30.8.15) – http://uknowledge.uky.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1093&context=gradschool_theses

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1 Response to Avoiding The Fraught Enterprise

  1. Catherine says:

    Comprehensive and well-researched Steve. Interesting to read as well.

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