In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography) – Martha Rosler

When reading Image Simulations, Computer Manipulations in Rosler’s book Decoys and Disruptions I identified that there were other essays that could be beneficial to me so I made a point of reading further Although this is a shorter essay I still believed that there would be some beneficial points made in relation to my research paper. My notes and evaluation can be seen below:

  • The Bowery (New York) – site where ‘victim photography’ has been photographed a lot by documentary photographers
  • Come to represent social consciousness in imagery
  • Photo-documentary – liberalist, progressive
  • There was sensationalist in journalism counteracted by Lewis Hine who produced images to appeal against social wrongs
  • Docu-culture of moralism – with arguments for reform
  • Drive for reform has been overtaken by exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism and metaphysics, trophy hunting, careerism
  • Cultural expressions of liberalism still exists in documentary
  • Mainstream documentary – in magazines sometimes in newspapers, becomes more expensive when moved into art/galleries
  • Documentary takes information from group of powerless people to a group of powerful people
  • Liberal documentary – poverty and oppression comes hand in hand with natural disasters, documentary doesn’t blame anyone it works to provoke a response
  • We can now oppress the spectacle of suffering – for this reason there has been a sexualisation of the image to still provoke fascination
  • Documentary plays to the strengths of the photographer, they shows us environments we wouldn’t expect to see
  • Documentary can be perhaps distorted by the nature of advertisement – perhaps working to attract people rather than to make an informed comment
  • ‘Authentic’ photographs and staged ones
  • Are photographic images made on the backs of exploitation? (reference to Migrant Mother)
  • Lange ‘she thought that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me’ – she didn’t benefit directly from the image but others like her did
  • In documentary images there are two moments: immediate/instrumental (created and held as testimonial) and conventional aesthetical-historical (less definable by boundaries, aware of context)
  • Second option – with a refusal for a concrete meaning, can be more dangerous when taken in a ‘straight’ context
  • Should we work against the ideology of aesthetic rightness – mutability of it
  • A powerful conveyed meaning in an image that is adept aesthetically, is effective
  • New genre of victimhood exploitation, the visual representation of victimisation made by someone else’s camera
  • Credibility of the image as an explicit trace that has been slowly destructed – there is an attack on the concept of objectivity
  • Garry Winogrand ‘images can yield any narrative’ – all meaning in photography, applies only to what resides in the ‘four walls’ of the framing edges (a personally mediated representation)
  • How can we define the extent and boundaries of the world in a photograph
  • There is a limit of scope, and society has frailties and imperfections
  • Martha Rosler – The Bowery (photo-text work) comments on the limitations of meaning, the photographs are powerful to indicate a comprehensive meaning and words can represent a whole culture/subculture through associations
  • Some images commenting on society can ‘work’
  • Higher status of galleries may increase a gap between art-based documentary and reportage contexts – perhaps a form of radical documentary is needed


As expected this essay provided me with an interesting perspective on documentary photography, this ideology can be applied to photojournalism, just with a bit of caution. The key idea in this essay in my view was Rosler posing the limitation to the single photograph, asking how a photographer can encomapss the whole world in one frame. This is a concept I wish to address in my research paper in relation to the opposition between analogue and digital. Where analogue photojournalism was very much about the singular ‘iconic’ image, the digital image has the potential to create a different form of narrative. Ritchin addresses that photography and moving image have become close in nature and practice so perhaps the future of photojournalism lies with another medium. Rosler also focuses on the subject of the image and how photojournalism could possibly benefit them referencing Dorothea Lange’s image Migrant Mother. She didn’t benefit directly from the image however others in her position did but should Lange have felt a responsibility towards her subject, is this image exploitation? Responsibility in association to representation is a key part of photojournalism and I plan to address this in my research paper, stressing the urgency to move away from what Rosler states in this essay as ‘victim photography’. Having read Rosler’s work I can use her ideology to support my own in this matter. Overall it has been extremely beneficial to research further essays from Rosler as it has provided me with perspectives on different elements of photojournalism, all of which I can use in my research paper and independent blog posts.


Reference: Rosler, M. (2004b) ‘In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography).’ in Decoys and Disruptions: selected writing, 1975-2001. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press


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