Re:Thinking Documentary Photography

by David Galalis

I had the privilege of helping organize a recent presentation entitled: "What Can Photography Reveal About Humanity: Rethinking the Task of Documentary Photography."  The speaker was Phil Bicker, Creative Director at Magnum Photos and Associate Photo Editor at TIME.

Mr. Bicker's presentation took the form of a slideshow of a diverse array of work from photographers he has worked with and respects, interspersed with his observations on meaning and value of their work.

Most of what he showed, while of a very high caliber, was "standard" photojournalistic fare: war, suffering, poverty, and disease.  All problems.  No solutions.  No alternative stories (although there were a few exceptions, such as Access to Life).

During the Q&A, I asked if he saw a bias in the field of visual journalism in favor of the dark and depressing, and if so, whether audiences ultimately become desensitized to the issues that such work is intended to bring to their attention.  I asked him if what is needed, in addition to images that call attention to difficult facts, are images of how such difficult facts as war, suffering, poverty, and disease can be confronted.  he agreed wholeheartedly.

So then why does the visual journalism published by the major media outlets almost always focus on problems, not solutions? Conflict, and not peace? Suffering, and not hope? Either photographers do not see the positive aspects of reality, or if they do, their work isn't being picked up by the mainstream outlets, or if it is, it isn't being demanded by audiences, and so it falls by the wayside.  

IGVP is here to advocate for eliminating this bias in our approach to creating and consuming visual media.  This post, and all the posts you read here, are part of that conversation.  Let me offer then an admittedly idealistic paradigm is constructed from Mr. Bicker's distinction during his presentation between images that "voyeuristic" and those that constitute true reportage.  The other part of it is drawn from IGVP's Ethical Code and Charter for Visual Peace.  

The paradigm is very simply this: we (photographers/filmmakers, editors, and viewers) ought to seek out images that reveal more than the world's problems and be suspicious of any that simply confirm our preconceptions about people, places, or events.  This is tripartite responsibility.

The Photographer

First, the photographer or filmmaker has the responsibility of creating work that does more than grab attention with shock value or superficial sentiment.  She ought to go out of her way to obtain images that go beyond cliche and preconceived notions of a person, place, or event.  In other words, visual storytellers ought to keep finding new stories in the midst of all the old ones (for example, what about stories of peace between religions in the Middle East?).

The Editor

The editor, for his part, has the responsibility to not curate galleries and documentaries that only affirm viewers' prejudices and stereotypes (e.g., "muslims, Jews, and Christians are at war with each other.").  Rather, an editor ought to curate coverage of a people, place, or event with sensitivity to all of the factors implicated and not simply give the audience what they expect to see.

The Viewer

Finally, the viewer, for her part, has to realize that any single image, photo essay, or documentary cannot possibly capture all the nuances of reality.  Thus, all documentary media should always be seen as an invitation to know more about what is depicted.  This isn't particularly difficult to do when most of us have internet access in our pockets, or at the very least, in our home, school, work, or local library.  And the integration of interactive elements into visual media can make it even easier to take the initiative to know more (if editor and photographer take the steps to create such interactive elements).

Ultimately, what is required on all fronts is simply to be in touch with our own humanity, and to not let our native curiosity to know the world be squelched by the prejudices that we all inherit from our cultures.