Research Point

Research Point: 

Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine? Is there a sense in which work like this is exploitative or patronising? Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run? Can photography change situations?

Martha Rosler is an American artist, who concentrates on social issues. Rosler believes that certain photographers did not help the social issues as their work may apparent the distance between the richer and the poorer in society. She stated that, “Documentary, as we know it carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful” (Rosler, 2004). She believes that the powerless people who relied on the powerful was not beneficial and instead increased the distance between the two.

I think Martha Rosler is slightly unfair on socially driven photographers. Lewis Hine for example, photographed child labour in American between the years 1908 and 1912 in an effort to show the working conditions and the dangers that those children faced. By doing this he raised awareness of child labour and helped to change the opinion on child workers. I personally do not think that the work is exploitative or patronising, as it the photographs are needed for the photographer to raise awareness in order to encourage change. But the people being photographed may find it distressing. Balance is important as to whether the feelings of the person being photographs outweighs those who benefit. It depends entirely who benefits, if the people being photographed, for example in Hines case, the children benefit from social change due to the photographs, then this is the best outcome for them. However, if the photographs are exploited by the media, and only used for selling newspapers and not actually helping anyone, then it does matter. Photography can definitely change situations, by spreading awareness of the issue, and informing the public of the problem. If done correctly, photography can help massively in changing situations.

Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses?

Susan Sontag as an American writer, who wrote on a variety of topics including photography. I do not think images of ware are necessary to provoke change. Whilst they do provide people with the knowledge of what is happening around the world, I do not think they are enough to cause a change. Seeing the images may provoke emotion, and some may feel the need to help, but the photographs do not provoke enough people into action. I do agree with Sontag’s view that horrific images of war numb viewers’ responses. We see these images everyday, on the news, in newspapers, even in films or television programmes. They have now become the norm. People are no longer as shocked as they would have been a while ago. Even though the media and photographers need to provide images, and images that would cause a response from their viewers, I believe this has caused the problem in the first time, as by showing these types of images almost everyday, people are getting less effected by them and it is now just seen as the norm.

Do you need to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project?  

I managed to find a copy of Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s work Inside/Out in a book call the Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. In which she believes that the photographer should be taking a distant approach to the project instead of being an insider or an outsider. In general I do not believe you have to be an insider in order to produce a successful documentary project. The key is to be impartial. Being an insider can cause problem, as they will always be bias showing though on the photographs. The photographer may no even be aware of what they are doing, but they are going to have an idea of what they want to photograph, and by doing this they may not be showing the whole story, so would the viewer really be informed fully from their project. The same could be said for an outsider. The benefit of being an insider is that they have prior knowledge of the event and background, which the outsider would not have; this could cause problems for the outsider. But this insider knowledge is not necessary to create a successful documentary project. I believe it really depends on the project itself, as to whether being an insider or an outsider is more beneficial.


Bio. Susan Sontag. [Online] Available from: http://www.biography.com/people/susan-sontag-9488814#synopsis [Accessed: 25th of October 2015].

La Grange. (2013) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. USA: Focal Press, Page 125-132.

Rosler, M. (2004) Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. USA: MIT Press, Page 179.

Rosler, M. Bio. [Online] Available from: http://www.martharosler.net/about/bio.html [Accessed: 20th October 2015].

The History Place. Child Labor in America 1908-1912 Photographs of Lewis W. Hine. [Online] Available from: http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/childlabor/ [Accessed: 20th of October 2015].


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