Engaged Observers:Documentary Photography since the Sixties. Black in White America.

Documentary photography exists in a space between objectivity and speculation and however accomplished we may be as readers of images we allow the best documentary images to lead us seamlessly from the reality of recorded facts into a realm of imaginative interpretation.

No doubt this is why so many images which have become ‘iconic’ like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother or  Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier, come from the documentary tradition.

A more recent image which has achieved iconic status is Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl and, like all iconic images, it has an interesting back story. The photograph was taken when McCurry was visiting in a refugee camp on the Afghan Pakistan border. He walked into a makeshift school room where he noticed the girl sitting by herself. With permission from the teacher he began to take a picture. The light fell easily on her and her shawl, the girl looked at him for an instant and the picture was taken. Like many good portraits, there is a sense that it is not we who are looking at the subject, the subject is looking at us.

This image became one of the most famous covers of National Geographic magazine, has been printed and published widely and has earned a lot of money. Attempts were made to find the girl but she had left the camp and returned to Afghanistan. In 2002, seventeen years after the original publication, McCurry heard that the camp was being disbanded and tried to trace the girl again. This time he was successful. Her name was Sharbat Gula and she was completely oblivious to the fact that she was the subject of a world famous photograph.

Perhaps this was a kind of blessing.

It is hard to imagine what it must be like to carry the burden of having one’s image used to represent the plight of your people and the condition of refugees worldwide. What was interesting, is that she could not comprehend how her image could have value and she refused the money she was offered, except for enough money to pay for her family to embark on a Haj pilgrimage. Faced with her refusal to have any more to do with the image, McCurrry and National Geographic have established funds to support the education of Afghan children.
The story of Sharbat Gula does raise a number of issues about the ethics and effectiveness of documentary photography. Can photography actually make a difference and how? What is the relationship between documentary photography and the commercialised art market? Is it appropriate for these images to be published in lavishly produced books, exhibited in galleries and sold for a premium  to collectors? How can photographers support themselves in ways which allow them to work without the constraints of editorial control.

Each generation of photographers has to address these issues in its own way and it is appropriate that now, when digital photography takes over and there is even talk of the death of photography, that Getty Publications have produced books which enable us to look back and consider how a range of other photographers have tackled these issues.

Engaged Observers: Documentary  Photography since the Sixties is the catalogue for a major exhibition at the J Paul Getty Museum which runs until November 14th, 2010.

Given the difficulties there have been of precisely defining or naming the various practices of documentary photography- is it photojournalism, press photography, social documentary, committed photography, reportage?- the Curator, Brett Abbott, has chosen his title carefully.

The engaged observers whose work he describes are nine photographers who have chosen to work in the photo essay form but in ways which are editorially independent, self assigned and committed to a long term engagement with the subject. For Abbott, this is a form which ‘..openly acknowledges its subjectivity, asserts its independent viewpoint and attempts to transcend the boundaries between journalism and art.’

In his introductory essay he locates this form within the whole history of documentary photography in America and Europe and sees its genesis in the great picture magazines of the thirties and forties which encouraged photographers to look  beyond the single image and begin to construct narratives. Interestingly, he does acknowledge the significant contributions of the editors like Henry Luce at Life and Stefan Lavant at Picture Post who, together with the  designers who were experimenting with new ways of laying out photographs on the page, created the new opportunities for photographers. By the sixties, however, photographers like Leonard Freed and Eugene Smith, together with the emerging Magnum group were rebelling against the constraints and editorial controls of the magazines and beginning to develop their own individual projects.
The essay is a useful and thorough analysis of the history of the documentary tradition but the core of the book is the Photographers section, a series of accounts of key bodies of work by each of the nine chosen photographers; Leonard Freed’s  Black in White America, Philip Jones Griffiths’s Vietnam Inc., W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith’s Minamata, Susan Meiselas’s Nicaragua June 1978- July1979, Lauren Greenfield’s  Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Holywood  and Girl Culture, Larry Towell’s The Mennonites, Sebastiao Salgado’s Migrations: Humanity in Transition and James Nachwey’s The Sacrifice.

These chapters are fascinating, revealing and essential reading for anyone interested in the recent history of documentary photography. Each begins with a short essay placing the publication in the context of the photographer’s career  and ends with a generous selection of images from project. By gathering the work together in this way it is possible to consider and compare the strategies adopted by each photographer. What was the genesis of each project? to what extent did they engage with and maintain relationships with their subjects? how did they negotiate with other agencies? what was their time scale and how were they able to sustain the work? how important was text and how did this relate to the way in which the work would the work be presented? Reading each section you become aware of how carefully each photographer considered these questions and how critical these decisions were to the success of the work.

Leonard Freed’s book, published around 1968 is the first body of work discussed and, fortunately, Getty Publications have also reproduced this book in its original format. This is welcome because original photographic monographs have become highly collectable and are now difficult to find.

Freed was a self taught photographer who supported himself by working for a number of magazines and newspapers but began to experiment with the extended photo essay in the early sixties. A photograph of a black GI defending the freedom line in Berlin haunted Freed and he began to investigate the rights of black Americans in their own country. He avoided the headline events of the Civil Rights Movement, however, and took a more nuanced view, examining the everyday and common place in black American culture and how this was influenced by the experience of living with injustice on a daily basis.

He was a street photographer, very much influenced by Cartier Bresson and the ‘decisive moment’ and his images can seem slightly detached at times but it is in the small details, the juxtaposition of figures and the sideways glances that  the meaning of many of his images is carried.

Turning from the beautifully printed and balanced tones of the grey scale images  in ‘Engaged Observers’ to the rawness of the images in the original is quite a shock. Not only are the images printed in a grainy high contrast black and white but they are also laid out in ways that fill the pages, often bleeding off to the edge of the page. It is as each image, however powerful, is not allowed to stand on its own. Even when an image is used across a full page spread each side of image contributes to the world of contrast being depicted. The images present an accumulation of injustice  and this is carried through into his use of text. He adds detailed captions at some point and then lets images speak for themselves at others but it is in Freed’s journal extracts that his personal voice comes through.

Like the photographs, it is the small detail which has the greatest impact; the friend who backs away from attending a black funeral with Freed, black lawyers discussing where tit is acceptable for them to meet with white colleagues, the kindly and friendly shopkeepers who casually betray their fear and loathing of black Americans and the black civil rights worker who gives up the struggle and betrays her colleagues. Freed’s book makes a case for freedom but it is also a study of the corruptive influence of injustice.

The chronological sequence of essays in ‘Engaged Observers’ inevitably raises the question ‘Where now?’ The photographer Sally Soames was recently asked in an interview for the Guardian My Best Shot feature what advice she would give to young photographers. ‘Don’t do it.’ she replied. ‘You can’t get the same quality stuff as I did. It’s not going to happen.’

But then Cornell Capa also complained in 1967 that the mass media were endangering  artistic, ethical and professional standards and were tending to obliterate the individuality of the ‘witness artist.’ Perhaps in our age it is the book form which is most under threat.

The final section of ‘Engaged Observers’ discusses the recent work of James Nachtways who chose to present his work not as a but but as a 30 foot long installation print of images from the trauma centre of an American unit engaged in the Iraq war. One of the most compelling exhibitions I have seen recently was Fernando Moleres’s images of child workers which was also an installation. Erected on weather proof panels, they were displayed in the main square in Krakow where shoppers could not fail to pass them.

Photographers also face a growing threat of restrictions and embargoes. Ever since the Vietnam war the military have been sensitive about allowing photographers near the front line but the issue has gone beyond controlling who takes the photographs and commanders now talk in terms of ‘controlling the narrative.’ Photographers in London have been prevented from taking photographs near public buildings. On the other hand, the prevalence of digital cameras and mobile phone cameras has created new opportunities for direct action  and a new breed of citizen reporters willing to exploit these opportunities. These images can be distributed  almost instantaneously and can have a very direct and immediate impact on events in ways which were never possible with conventional photography.

The challenge for these new forms is the extent to which the next generation of photographers will be able to build on the work of the engaged observers of the late 20th century and construct their own forms of compelling narratives.

Availability:Getty Publications

Reviewed by Chris Madge. Chris is a photographer who lives and works in Newcastle upon Tyne.