Assignment 4: A Critical Essay: A short exploration of the role and importance of objects in documentary photography
We live our lives in the middle of things. Material culture carries emotions and ideas of startling intensity. Yet only recently have objects begun to receive the attention they deserve. (Turkle, 2007, p. loc. 70)
Very often documentary photography privileges the human content while setting aside those things that make us visibly human – objects. The aim of this review is to explore the use and role of objects in documentary photography to provide context, to act as symbols, to support narrative and ultimately to consider whether objects themselves can provide a documentary narrative – supported or unsupported by other texts. In doing so I will be looking not just at photography, but also call briefly on archaeology, and museum studies, both of which also face the challenge of developing narratives based on discrete pieces of evidence, and some elements of material culture – which examines the way we interact with objects.
Why are objects important?
Image removed for copyright reasons: (Suwarnaadi, 2007)
If I suggest that the figure above is a merchant banker it is unlikely that I will be believed. Why is this? It is because we attribute meaning, based on our experience, to objects such as his jacket, the headphones and his haircut.
Our understanding of humanity is intimately linked with our knowledge and understanding of objects. Archaeology – the study of human history - could be argued to begin at the emergence of stone tools (Bahn, 2012). As McGregor notes in A History of the World in 100 Objects “…what sets us apart from (other animals) is that we make tools before we need them, and once we have used them we keep them to use again.” (MacGregor, 2010)
Hoskins cited in (Albano, 2007) argues that “the capacity of a person to act as a social subject is defined through his or her relation to the material world and particularly to certain objects that represent him or her.” More than this Miller argues in “Stuff” (Miller, 2010)that objects do not just represent us they have the capability to shape and change us.
Without objects Sander’s photographs of Germans would simply be a collection of naked people. We would be limited in our interpretations of the images to a few general aspects of physiology. Any attempt to characterise their social status, professions or trades would be little better than Victorian physiognomy.
What is the purpose of documentary photography?
It is not the within the scope of this essay to discuss the true nature of documentary, but it clearly helps to have a working idea as a framework for what follows. Lockemann provides a number of thoughts suggesting at one point that even though visual culture discourse discounts the idea that a photo can provide authentic or truthful depictions of reality that is still the purpose of much documentary photography. She notes that the power of documentary photography is “to visualize certain aspects of life or the world and to prove or circumstantiate the narrative going along with it.” (Lockemann, 2005)
What is an object?
Following (Pearce, 1993) I will concentrate on those relatively small, movable pieces for which ‘object’ or ‘thing’ is our term in ordinary speech – small lumps of the physical world to which we ascribe cultural value (and consequentially meaning).
How do we ascribe cultural value to it? One way, suggested by Pearce, is selection. In the case of photography this is integral to the process of composition – the selection of what should and should not be included in an image, and how they should be placed in relation to each other – an act which in Saussurean semiotics is how the meaning of the image is defined (Chandler, 2004). As Susan Bright notes in Art Photography Now “The very act of photographing something makes it special and our understanding of it can change dramatically once it is turned into a subject.” (Bright, 2011)
Albano (Albano, 2007, p. 17) notes that objects are culturally invested with a “halo of authenticity” and have an “evidential force”. This parallels the evidential force of photographs, and may be related to the indexicality of objects. In a sense one can argue that, for example, a spear point proves the existence of humans in a particular time and place in much the same way as a photograph proves their existence.
The congruence of the photograph and the object
An additional complication to understanding the role of objects in photography is the human tendency to elide the content of a photograph with the object itself. Barthes (Barthes, 2000, pp. 2-7) makes the observation that a photograph is “never distinguished from its referent” at least not immediately and generally. The photo stands in for the subject matter – “This is my daughter” – seldom “Here is a photo of my watch.” This congruence allows us – in many cases - to read a photograph as we read the object. This is an idea exploited to the full in Faraday and Wang’s Possessed (Faraday & Wang, 2013) in which the artists encourage people to give up a treasured object in return for a photo of the same.
Taken to its logical extreme this process, and the evidential force of objects even allows for the photograph of an object to stand in for a human, as in A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapter VII (Simon, 2011)where teeth and fragments of bone stand in for missing members of family trees.
Semiotics and the fluidity of meaning
Objects in photographs can convey meaning - act as signifiers - in three ways: as symbols, icons or indexes (Short, 2011, p. 120 et seq). As an index an object works with the indexicality of the photograph itself to provide evidence. So in the previous example a photograph of a spear point emerging from an archaeological dig is indexical on two levels – the photo “proves” the existence of the spear point in a particular location, and the spear point proves the existence of man in the same location. For a more photographic example Tomatsu’s A Bottle that Was Melted by Heat Wave and Fires (Regine, 2012) is documentary evidence of a massive and destructive event.
It is also a symbol – a symbol of the suffering of the victims – and potentially an icon of the same as the distortions of the bottle mirror the keloid scarring they suffered.
A particular challenge in this context is that symbolism is culture dependent. As both Pearce (Pearce, 1993) and Rapley (Rapley, n.d.) observe, the meaning of objects and consequently our reading of an image can change over time, as a result of our personal knowledge and as a result of cultural changes. Until the advent of Shades of Grey – this was simply a cable tie (image removed). So: How can we use images and their associated symbolism to establish a narrative?
Objects and narrative
The need to convey a narrative through quotes and selected images is analogous to the work of archaeology and museum curators over many decades. In all three cases the objects (photographs) are selective and selected – they cannot tell the whole story – and how we curate and contextualise these items affects the narrative they provide, as does the knowledge and mind-set of the viewer. (Pearce, 1993)
Berger (Berger & Mohr, 1982, p. 88 et seq) argues that photographs are “quotations” from a continuum, and that a consequence of this is that single images are ambiguous and weak in meaning. He goes on to propose that this ambiguity may provide “Another way of telling" through the juxtaposition of many images in a type of photo essay.
The relationship between photos and text
An alternative approach, which Berger acknowledges’ is to augment the photographs with another medium – typically words.
“The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words. And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph” (Berger & Mohr, 1982, p. 92)
The use of supporting words can be didactic, can highlight a general direction, or can provide additional information which enhances the image. (Short, 2011) By implication they can also misdirect or play with the viewer.
The broad roles objects play
The participation of objects in a photograph sits on a continuum from minor inconsequential participation through to sole participant. To explore the role of objects in documentary further I propose to break this continuum down into four categories: Incidental, Contextual, Essential and Single Subject
This includes all objects whose removal from an image would not significantly affect the narrative. Photography does not have the luxury of fully selecting everything which appears in the frame of images outside of a studio context. So the wheelie bin in this photo (Image removed for copyright reasons) adds nothing – it is an incidental objects which does not impact on the narrative of the image or the context
At their simplest a contextual object can be simply a way of setting the scene, such as the clothing, the bar equipment and the cigarettes which feature throughout Brassai’s Paris and serve to ensure that we know this is the less salubrious end of Paris in the early 20th century.
For a more complex example consider two of McCullins images: Shell-shocked US Marine, Hue, 1968 and Gypsy watching the police evict his family, Kent, early 1960s (McCullin, 2003)
In both cases we have a man showing clear facial signs of stress – these are first and foremost pictures of people. The first thing we see is the look in their eyes. It is only after that initial shock that we start to seek explanation. We do this through the visual clues provided by the clothing and the objects in the picture (and the extended caption in the case of the Gypsy). The actual details of the objects could change – they are not essential to identify the human suffering – they do however, give it a context.
In semiotic terms the individuals are symbolic of human suffering while the objects index the cause of their suffering and perhaps even authenticate that suffering.
Staying with McCullin let us consider machine guns. These two examples, Berlin, 1961 (left) and Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 1961 (right) (McCullin, 2003) show an object becoming increasingly important to the narrative Both show a narrative of occupation – in neither case is it clear if this is really welcome but the juxtaposition of guns and civilians clearly shows this to be an unusual situation. But while the narrative would survive more or less intact without the machine gun on the left, in the right hand picture if we remove the gun we would simply have a picture of two military types sitting on a street watching the civilians. The machine gun is essential to the narrative and as an icon of modern warfare it’s incongruous, threatening and centre stage.
Finally we come to the visually unsupported narrative object – an object which carries the whole story on its own, in conjunction with other objects or perhaps with support from other contextual material. Still life is a long established genre that draws on the traditions of painting (Jones, 2012) – but until recently relatively few seem to have used objects for their documentary value. Perhaps the most notable exceptions might be Japanese photographers dealing with the aftermath of the atomic bombs. Kawada’s “The Map”, Tomatsu’s “11:02 Nagasaki” and Tsuchida’s “Hiroshima Collection” (Baker & Mavlian, 2015) all use objects to create a narrative of the destructive force and ongoing impact of the explosions.
One problem with photographing people to illustrate atrocity or destruction is that such images can be considered “aesthetisation of suffering” (Lowe, 2015). In his introduction to “The Forensic Turn” – an exhibition consisting entirely of images of objects - Lowe suggests that there is potential in imaging the objects or spaces associated with such acts, and argues that a cameras ability to capture mundane detail can generate a tension within a viewer who is aware that there is a much deeper reading. In the case of The Forensic Turn this knowledge is offered to the viewer through textual support as a short artist’s statement.
Lowe also notes that this “aesthetics of the banal has become a common one in contemporary photography” and it is certainly not restricted to war/suffering. Caroline McNally’s (McNally, 2013) critique of consumerism, Please Recycle, includes an image of every item in her family home and Taryn Simon’s Contraband (Simon, n.d.) uses a similar approach to create a narrative of air traffic and smuggling across US borders.
In these two cases the sheer volume of imagery gives clues to the context and meaning of the overall work, allowing it to largely stand alone, in a way which reflects Berger’s “another way of telling”. David Shepherd’s Discarded (Shepherd, n.d.) on the other hand requires some textual support reflecting Berger’s weakness of meaning the images themselves.
The intent of this essay was to review the use of objects in documentary photography rather than draw specific conclusions. However it is clear that we use objects as aids to thinking and in documentary photography we use them, more often than not, as aids to understanding a narrative. They do this by, among other means acting as symbols, by creating tensions, by substituting for people.
The weakness of individual images frequently means that a documentary object needs support from other images or text to allow an effective reading. However their very ‘objectness’ can add to the authenticity of an image or be used to mislead which allows for a wide variety of artistic uses for objects within the documentary genre, as illustrated by the examples provided.
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