|Documentary photography and advocacy |
Contents Fragments Theme PhV Checklist
Further issues that run through the history of documentary photography are advocacy and propaganda. In its purist form a photograph or photo-essay should tell a story rather than take a position. With Eugène Atget he was financing himself, not very well most of the time, and took photographs to record "Old Paris" - it was old at the time he was recording it and that was his passion. If he was an advocate a desire to preserve a record of a changing time was the level of his interest. Lewis Hine's photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building (1929-1931) weren't an argument for improving safety standards, though they could have been, they were a visual hymn to the nobility of work and architectural greatness. This wasn't advocacy but his earlier work for the reform of child labour in America paid for by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) clearly was. Advocacy at its best is the delivery of a clear message that highlights a social issue with visual honesty.
PhVLewis Hine: National Child Labor Committee (NCLC)
We can not know the photographs a photographer did not take, the selection process used, the destroyed or suppressed negatives, rarely do we have documentation on how a photographer edited the message and the changes made through time to improve the story. Often we have to judge the integrity of a series based solely on the surviving photographs with little or no additional reliable information.
Jacob Riis (1849-1914) was by profession a journalist and used photography to provide evidence for his crusade to show the intense poverty of New York. The most significant book by Jacob Riis was How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) that has poor quality printing but the power of the images and accompanying text delivered a powerful message.
PhVJacob Riis: How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890)
Some of the finest documentary projects of the twentieth century such as Larry Clark's Tulsa (1971), Danny Lyon's The Bikeriders (1968) are not advocacy. The projects are in-depth and thought-provoking probes into worlds most of us will not see.
PhVLarry Clark: Tulsa (1971)
PhVDanny Lyon: The Bikeriders (1968)
In a world of the ubiquitous camera where everybody records the world around them and photojournalism is fragmented into a plethora of media distribution channels scrambling for ad revenue a more pressing issue needs to be addressed. How will documentary projects be financially supported when the news media will rarely fund long-term assignments? If cameras are everywhere will the media obtain images cheaply but not the independence of the story. If advocacy can be concealed within the news how is the bias filtered out or can it be?
- Λ Propaganda is a means of mass persuasion that sets out to mould opinion through the use of information, ideas and rumour. The word doesn't have a negative connotation but the concept is generally perceived as negative.
- Λ For Lewis Hines work at the Empire State Building - Lewis W. Hine, 1932, Men at Work, (New York: The Macmillan Company); Lewis Hine, 1997, Men at Work, (Dover Publications); Freddy Langer, 2001, Lewis W. Hine: The Empire State Building, (Prestel Publishing)
- Λ For the context of Lewis Hine's work with the NCLC there are multiple studies including - Judith Mara Gutman, 1967, Lewis W. Hine and the American Social Conscience, (New York: Walker); Walter Rosenblum et al., 1977, America and Lewis Hine: Photographs, 1904–1940, (New York: Aperture); Daile Kaplan (ed.), 1992, Photo Story: Selected Letters and Photographs of Lewis Hine, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press); Alison Nordström & Elizabeth McCausland, 2012, Lewis Hine, (D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.); Alexander Nemerov, 2016, Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine, (Princeton University Press)
- Λ For a background to Jacob Riis - Alexander Alland Sr, 1993, Jacob A. Riis: Photographer and Citizen, (New York: Aperture); Janet B. Pascal, 2005, Jacob Riis: Reporter and Reformer, (Oxford University Press, USA); Bonnie Yochelson & Daniel Czitrom, 2007, Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York, (New York: New Press)
- Λ For the books of Jacob Riis - Jacob A.Riis, 1890, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons); Jacob A. Riis, 1892, The Children of the Poor, (London: Sampson Low, Marston, & Company)
- Λ Clark, Larry, 1971, Tulsa, (New York: Lustrum)
- Λ Danny Lyon,1968, The Bikeriders, (New York and London: The Macmillan Company and Collier-Macmillan Limited)
Creative Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International