Project 4 – The Gallery Wall – Documentary as Art
Look online at Paul Seawright’s work Sectarian Murders.
In 1988 Paul Seawright photographed the sites of sectarian attacks, in and around Belfast, from the 1970s. Seawright did not give his work a title, instead it became known as Sectarian Murders. Whilst growing up, Seawright kept a diary, which he wrote down what happen locally, including the sectarian attacks. He used his diaries to revisit the sites. He also did research from old articles about the murders. His photographs were of the location of the attacks, usually from the victim’s point of view. There is nothing in the pictures to hint at reasoning behind the photographs, it is only when you read the accompanying text that it informs the viewer of what the images represents.
How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?
The line between documentary photography and art photography is very thin, and easily crossed over. Documentary photographs record events, moments and stories. Seawrights photographs could be seen as documentary style as they are showing places where something significant happened. But Seawright has photographed them in colour, this moves away from the documentary genre, which is usually in black and white. Black and white photographs usually show emotion, whereas in colour these photos are just photos that the viewer must interpret. There is no people in the photographs, which also suggests a switch away from documentary photography. Each image has a text accompanying it, which are from newspaper articles of the time explaining the scene. Without the text, the images just look like a normal photograph but when put together the photograph gets a whole new meaning. For example, the following photograph, has the caption “Thursday 14th December 1972. ‘The Sixteen-year-old youth was standing at the corner of Dandy Street talking, hen a motorcycle with two youths on it drove by. The pillion passenger was carrying a Sterling sub-machine gun and opened fire on the group. The boy fell dying in a hail of bullets’”.
Fine art photography is difficult to definition as it means different things to different photographers. Fine art photographs are down to the creativeness of the photographer, but they usually have a message. Which Seawrights work does. I believe this work does challenge the boundaries between documentary and art, but it is down to the viewer’s interpretation.
Listen to Paul Seawright talk about his work at: http://vimeo.com/76940827
What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?
In a video posted online by the Imperial War Museums, Seawright is asked, ‘Much of your work is not explicit in its context or narrative, the viewer has to piece it together, can you talk about this?’ In his answer, he talks about the balance of being journalistic and being too obscure. He wanted ‘to make work that visually engages people, that draws them in and then gives itself up, gives it’s meaning up slowly’. This is true of his work, as just by looking at the photograph, you don’t know it’s meaning, only when you look at the text can you start to see the image in a different light. He didn’t want his work to become journalistic, “The construction of meaning is not done by me, it is done by the person looking at the artwork, and you must leave space for that to happen, if you don’t then you really are back to an editorial picture in a magazine that has to function in a different way. It has to be quick and it has to give its meaning quickly” (Seawright, 2004). I do agree with his argument, the way he has photographed the sites, has given rise to an engagement with the viewer that other photographs lack. The viewer has to interpret the image, it doesn’t show everything, this allows the viewer to engage with them and begin to ask questions.
If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does it change its meaning?
As I mentioned earlier, documentary photography photographs events and moments. If we being to label a documentary photograph as art, we are going to look at it in a different way. The point of the photograph would become somewhat lost; people may just see it as the photographer’s creativity which is what fine art photography is. It would change the way we view the photographs.
British Photography. Paul Seawright. Sectarian Murders (1988). [Online] Available from: http://www.britishphotography.org/artists/17199/ei/1739/paul-seawright-paul-seawright-sectarian-murder-1988 [Accessed: 10th November 2015].
Ekin, A. C. (2007) Fine Art Photography. [Online] Available from: http://www.keptlight.com/fine-art-photography/ [Accessed: 27th of November 2015].
Nieman Reports. (2001) Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. [Online] Available from: http://niemanreports.org/articles/photojournalism-and-documentary-photography/ [Accessed: 21st of November 2015].
Seawright, P. Sectarian Murder. [Online] Available from: http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ [Accessed: 22nd of November 2015].
Vimeo. (2004) Catalyst: Paul Seawright. [Online] Available from: https://vimeo.com/76940827 [Accessed: 11th of November 2015].
Look at some more images from Sarah Pickering’s Website. How do Pickering’s images make you feel? Is Public Order an effective use of documentary or is it misleading?
When I first saw Sarah Pickering’s Public Order, I had mixed feelings. I can honestly say I didn’t know how to feel about the images. It felt weird looking at the buildings and the roads, and knowing that they are fake, but in some pictures you could say it looks like a real town. For example, the train stations, has the signs on it, shops have their signs, it even has a small green with plants and trees and in the picture entitled Flicks Nightclub, if it wasn’t for all the windows being white, it would look like a normal street, but then Pickering photographs behind the nightclub and you can see that it is all a façade. However, on doing some research into Public Order, I found that the place where she photographed is used to train people in the Police Service. What I find interesting is the details that have been kept in, like the names on the buildings, the street names, the litter on the streets, the cars, the traffic lights and so on.
I do not believe that Public Order is an effective use of documentary style photography. Documentary photography is used to record any historical or significant event. Personally I do not believe photographing a place where the police use to train is strictly documentary photography. However, it could be seen as a version of it, as Pickering has photographed something significant, which could be seen as historically as one of the places where the police train.