Martha Rosler (1981) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)’ In: Wells, L. (ed.) (2018) The Photography Reader: History and Theory. (2 edition) (s.l.): Routledge. pp 335-357
Photographers became aware of the possibility of photography being a stronger means of raising awareness of social inequality than writing. However Rosler says that much of the work produced in the early twentieth century is more to do with fear of disorder at lower levels of society feeding upwards and disrupting morals than any real desire to allow self-improvement among the lower classes. She says this was down to a fear that the side-effects of poverty and inequality “would threaten the health and security of polite society“(Rosler,1981:336), and that the work of such reformers were “often meant to awaken the self-interest of the privileged”(Rosler,1981:337). The impact of photography in this period came about because “images might be more unsettling than the arguments enveloping them”(Rosler,1981:337). She says that the arguments put forward in such calls for reform became embedded within structures of government but soon proved to be inadequate.
Rosler further demonstrates the failure of documentary as a tool of social change by describing how liberal sentiments have been replaced by a tendency towards poverty tourism. The distancing effect of a photograph means that – in Kendall Walton’s argument – we see the image itself but not into the image. Viewers can safely feel sympathy for subjects without the same degree of empathy that was true when seeing the earlier work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. There has also developed a tendency in society to blame the victims for their own misfortune, rather than to address the underlying social causes. A general society less concerned with social justice views images of poverty and disaster in a way that “reassures them about their relative wealth and social position”(Rosler,1981:338).
It is worth pointing out that recipients of top-down charity probably don’t care too much about the reasons why people choose to help. However as far as actual action goes, any improvements may well be better achieved by those directly affected than by concerned external activists.
Rosler describes how presentation of documentary photography affects how it is received. In many cases the photographer becomes an innocent intermediary, and that the any intentions of truth on the part of the photographers can be negated by an insensitive magazine editor. She gives the example of W.Eugene Smith’s Minamata expose that was published in Camera 35 as a celebration of Smith rather than as a denunciation of the Chisso company.
Rosler makes the case that this is symptomatic of a tendency to view images of war, disaster, poverty as recognition of the skill and empathy of the photographer rather than of any concern for the subject. Rosler says of this tendency that it comes about because a documentary photograph has two forms, immediate and aesthetic-historical. At the point a photograph is produced the balance leans towards the subject but as time passes the subject becomes less important than the aesthetic qualities of the image itself. This is also linked to Walton’s argument around transparent pictures, that the way in which an image is understood will change over time but we may lose the ability to see into the image. Rosler says “historical interests, not transcendental verities, govern whether any particular form is seen as adequately revealing its meaning”(Rosler,1981:345). Subjective opinions on the meaning and worth of images will always change over time.
Rosler argues that the move towards aestheticizing documentary images – including presentation adjustments such as better books and galleries – has been seized by the political right as a means of neutering concern for equality. She says of the relation between an image and the depicted subject that “the relation has simply been severed in thought”(Rosler,1981:347).
Documentary images of individual failures in society (“drunken bums”) become little more than poverty porn. Individual images of people become little more than descriptions of characters that have chosen to play that part in life. There is little intention to raise any social conscience in the viewer.
Her work ‘The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems’ is her attempt to address the problems with documentary photography, in that it is generally looking down from a higher social position and do nothing to address the world from the point of view of the subjects themselves. She acknowledges that images on their own cannot present reality but showing the environment that is inhabited by the homeless is a start. Giving equal prominence to the text tries to provide a balance between received messages from the images and her authorial intentions. Of course the problem of her being an outsider is still there.
Rosler summarises by stating that the paternalistic, liberal documentary style of the past is no longer relevant, and that the subsequent voyeuristic view of alien lifestyles is not enough either. She suggests that a newer, more effective documentary approach will be better achieved from within the affected environments. Although perhaps not yet (not in 1981 anyway); “the common acceptance of the idea that documentary precedes, supplants, transcends, or cures, substantive activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary”(Rosler,1981:350).