Documentary Photography: A Long-Form Art Form Amid the Culture Wars

The intensive use of photographs by mass media lays ever fresh responsibilities upon the photographer. We have to acknowledge the existence of a chasm between the economic needs of our consumer society and the requirements of those who bear witness to this epoch. This affects us all, particularly the younger generations of photographers. We must take greater care than ever not to allow ourselves to be separated from the real world and from humanity.—Henri Cartier-Bresson

These words, written in 1968, seem more prescient than ever in our twenty-first century world of digital discourse, where outrage is but a slip of the tongue away and guilt comes by association. What he would have made of such a world is impossible to know, yet his message is clear. Seek understanding. Be honest. Avoid contrivance. Keep an open mind.

Of all the art forms, photography is arguably the most egalitarian in its accessibility and utility, which goes partway to explaining its ubiquity today. There is truth to the oft-cited quip that we take more pictures than ever, yet look at them less, and many photographers have been quick to lament this unfortunate consequence of artistic democratisation.

One glaring failure of this democratisation seems to have gone unquestioned however: the lack of artists who are creating agenda-free work. This is a troubling development, as—irrespective of the fact that objectivity within photography is a complex philosophical issue, and regardless of whether it is possible to be objective at all—there don’t seem to be that many photographers even trying to be objective.

This is troubling because it means we are neglecting the potential of documentary photography to explore the ever-growing polarisation of our society with nuance. It also leaves the potential of the photobook largely untapped—and the photobook allows photographs to expound upon a subject and render it in a singular form.

Art in general has got an undeniably rough ride in moderate and conservative quarters over the years, and has attained a not entirely underserved reputation as bourgeois, elitist, overtly metropolitan, and generally unwelcoming to anyone presenting work that runs contrary to the prevailing narratives concerning Social Justice, intersectional theory, feminism, gender, race, etc.

As scholars in other disciplines have begun to realise, however, this is not conducive to a society that values freedom of expression, a society in which the battle of ideas is encouraged to be vigorously fought. While some other academics have begun to question this orthodoxy, the art world has remained unchanged.

So how can documentary photography overcome the shortfall in discourse within the art world, and how might young, talented artists cast a fresh glance at complex and difficult subjects?

The modern art scene has, in many ways, become staid and boring. The same tired tropes are rehashed time and again, in droll attempts to shock and titillate. The nominees for the 2018 Turner Prize produced work on undoubtedly meaningful—yet entirely predictable—subjects, such as human rights violations, decolonization, transnational leftist politics, queer identity and class, racial and social inequalities, all of which—perhaps unsurprisingly—were only explored through a single lens. This fails to do justice to the difficult nuances that present themselves when we delve deeper into such complex issues.

The Turner Prize is a common punching bag for those with grievances against the arts, and it is not alone in its neglect of viewpoint diversity. But it is an egregious example. Former prizewinner Mark Wallinger recently launched a no-Brexit poster campaign and Jeremy Deller released Fuck Brexit T-shirts. There has been an almost unanimous agreement among the leaders of the art world that Brexit is bad and must be stopped at all costs. These artists should, of course, be free to express themselves however they see fit, but the Turner committee, as gatekeepers, ought to mediate a more nuanced position of enquiry. The art world is hardly doing its due diligence in exploring the shades of grey. Some attempts have been made to calm the flames, but, for the most part, the arts community is suspiciously unanimous in many of its views on Brexit and other political issues.

The greatest documentary photographers of the twentieth century explored subject matter that lay outside of social norms, and created not just visually arresting work, but lasting change of the kind sought—but rarely achieved—by activist artists today. Photographers like Bruce Davidson, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus and Lewis Hine produced social documentary work, which captured unique and often transient moments, work which now serves as a visual anthropological resource for scholars and lovers of art, and which conveys lessons about socio-political mistakes we must hope never to repeat.

One key premise of their work was their ability to gain access to and communicate with desperate people on the fringes of society, who felt socially or economically disconnected from the mainstream concerns of the time. The same problems still exist today—even though our technological progress may obscure that fact—and the same outsiders still exist, yet our ability to interact with them seems to be diminished. The question is why?

In the 1960s and 70s, Diane Arbus’s images of carnival performers, strippers and drag artists cast her subjects in a way that some consider humanising and others believe to be voyeuristic—yet which we must acknowledge to be intellectually honest. At that time, when conservative views were mainstream and Nixon was president, being gay or transgender was dangerous. As the flower power haze of the 60s faded and gave way to the descent into madness that was the Vietnam War, making art about and out of these outliers was a divisive endeavour, which involved personal risk.

Today, our world is just as divided, but activists have other motivations. Campaigns against war and in favour of fundamental rights have taken a back seat to attacks on free speech and tolerance and to increasing polarisation. In this culture war, artists are seen as either on the right or the wrong side of history—leaving precious little space for an exploration of what lies in between. The art establishment see themselves as rebels in the most noble sense of the word, fighting for truth and light and against hatred and bigotry—but, all the while, they fail to detect their own hypocrisy.

The art scene and woke big business are themselves the new elite. Those on the wrong side of history—the so-called right-wingers, nationalists, fascists and bigots—are often working-class people, who are all too often are dismissed as uneducated simpletons in need of intervention on the part of those who know best. These new outliers are often only guilty of expressing concern at the radical changes affecting them, or questioning the status quo. They include, as almost any group will, people who express views that have no place in a civil society. But, instead of challenging these views, both the art world and society in general have placed a blanket of moral scorn over a great swath of humanity with much to both offer and learn.

This un-personing of large groups of people by an elite presents us with a quandary. How should artists approach these undesirables from a position of nuance? There is little to be gained from appearing to be impartial towards such people as an artist, in a society which mistakes impartiality for agreement. This creates an atmosphere in which, in order to get ahead, it is better to attack controversial people than attempt to understand them—as a result, the circle of confirmation bias ties itself into ever tighter knots.

Conservatives reading this may now be rejoicing at the idea of a turncoat artist who is on their side—but it’s not as simple as that. This situation has been greatly exacerbated by conservative austerity policies, which have defunded the arts. As the result of lack of funding and of neoliberal policies, creative jobs pay very little and unpaid internships are the norm. And we have come to accept this. Almost 90% of arts internships in the UK are unpaid. Citing a report published by the Sutton Trust, founder Sir Peter Lampl explains, “what unpaid internships have done in our sector is perpetuate elitist practices that promote directly or indirectly a workforce accessible only to those who can afford to work for free.”

When most of the potential artists qualified to comment fairly on working class issues are effectively priced out of the market, a lack of nuance is the inevitable result. Even if a working class photographer can make the connections needed for success, find the funding to self publish and scrape together the money for camera equipment, she will still need to overcome the prejudices of a viewership who could hardly be further removed from her in terms of social conventions and allegiances.

Given this double-pronged attack from conservatives, who have starved the arts of cash, and liberal gatekeepers, who are keeping out the riff raff and their ideas, we may never see another Diane Arbus or Don McCullin. This is all the more galling when you consider that, of all the art forms, documentary photography—and social documentary photography in particular—is the one most likely to force people to go out into the world and interact with one another. It’s a curious art form. We photographers spend half our time hunched over screens in shaded rooms or beavering away in darkrooms and the other half out exploring the world—but that’s how we tell our stories.

Unlike fine artists, documentary photographers can’t get away with locking themselves in their studios for months on end, only emerging to be feted by a world of like-minded compatriots, who reaffirm their views. Documentary photographers have no choice but to be challenged by what they see and to interact with it: their task is to find an individual approach to their material and to how they frame and represent it.

This is one of the greatest strengths of documentary photography—its engagement with its subject matter allows it to be non-partisan, to be a vehicle through which to challenge both sides of the complex debates that are currently being reduced to binary choices. Documentary series are substantial bodies of work, created over periods of months and years, a long-form genre that speaks through both pages and walls.

The photobook allows the artist to express content that could not be displayed in a gallery environment. Though it can be prohibitively expensive for an individual to produce a photobook, the book itself is an affordable enough object to reach a wide viewership. It’s therefore crucial that those who hold the purse-strings allow greater funding of the arts and stop viewing them through a solely economic lens. As John Ruskin put it, “life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.”

The art establishment must do more to encourage viewpoint diversity, reverse its thought monoculture and allow contrary opinions and working class voices to be heard. In their book The Coddling of The American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff note that, in order to prevent a culture of confirmation bias, a left–right ratio of 3:1 is needed. This allows the free exchange of ideas and permits the two political groups to keep each other in check. The arts have always been left-leaning, but have in recent times become less and less of an open forum, and the ratio has become increasingly distorted. Haidt and Lukianoff note that in the social sciences and humanities the ratios are all above 10:1—even 17:1 in academic psychology—what the ratio is within the art establishment is hard to tell, but it is probably as high, if not higher.

The problem of funding will be easier to solve if we rectify the state of current artistic discourse. If we see the arts as a mirror through which society perceives itself, rather than as a waste of resources, we can encourage the growth of art that expresses a more profound conception of what it means to exist in society. Documentary photography should spearhead that change.

Those of us involved in the arts owe a debt of gratitude and solidarity to the lone voices in the humanities who are not afraid to challenge prevailing ideologies. Those who are in a position to support young artists who make nuisances of themselves should do so. Pushing back against the excesses of one way of thinking can bring us closer to a middle ground, closer, perhaps, to the truth—even if the truth is that there is no one truth.

Documentary photographers with a thirst for truth cannot quench this thirst by appealing to authority. I for one hope to see more dangerous work, in the spirit of the twentieth-century greats, together with a shift away from elitism and Dickensian nose-thumbing at the working classes. The democratisation of photography can certainly help achieve this—but a cultural shift will need to occur before we can realise the untapped potential of documentary photography.

Down with cuts to the arts. Down with bourgeois gatekeepers. This is a decisive moment. Let’s seize it.

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1 comment

  1. your cover photo is fantastic and you should take credit for it

    Grafs 9 and 10 should have been stricken. The argument boils down to “they’re wrong because I don’t share their viewpoint.” You’re diluting your position.

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