Monday, 25 November 2013

What is a document?

This post also appears on WeAreOCA as required by the course notes.

A document is “…any concrete or symbolic indexical sign, preserved or recorded toward the ends of representing, of reconstituting, or of proving a physical or intellectual phenomenon.” So says Suzanne Briet in ”What is documentation” – one of the founding texts of information science. On this basis both the balloon, and the image of the balloon are documents – the one of the power of a leader, the other of the existence of a particular balloon. The photo is also a secondary document, in that it references the message of the first document.Memnon flare corrected

In this sense it is difficult to disagree with RobTM’s opening gambit that all photos are documents.

But documents of what? Shelley catches the idea somewhat in Ozymandias:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains.”

The eponymous statue was a document to the greatness of Ozymandias – yet now it is a document to human frailty.

As Anne implies the difficulty with photos is that they are very incomplete documents. In “Another Way of Telling” Berger argues that individual photos cannot tell the whole story – they are simply quoting from appearances. What we can gather from that quote depends on the amount of information in the photo – the size of the quote – and the context in which it is used. In this sense it is little different from a text quote and behaves in a similar way.

The quote can come with context, or we can provide some from our experience – which of these is the most authentic is questionable. If we trust the source of the photo and the supporting context, we regard it as authentic, if we don’t we may prefer to believe an understanding based on our own limited knowledge. That “knowledge” invariably changes with time – so perhaps one answer to Jose’s final question is that – as Stan suggested – both time and context contribute to the making of a document.

This is amply illustrated by the second image. Without Jose’s supporting story this is quite a short quote – we can identify a priest and someone in military uniform – but there is little evidence of location or period. In the absence of Jose’s extra information we might conclude this was a meeting of significant figures, or a chance meeting in a street or even an outtake from a spaghetti western, depending on our own experiences prejudices and interests.

Document is a slippery concept – buffeted by time, context and our personal baggage – especially in the case of a single quote from appearance.

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