Objectivity and Subjectivity

Notes on developments in objective/subjective and outsider/insider photography

Bull, S. (2009) Photography (Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications). (1 edition) (s.l.): Routledge.
Williams, V. and Bright, S. (2007) How We are: Photographing Britain. (01 edition) (s.l.): Tate Publishing.

For the first assignment we are asked to produce a photo essay showing our involvement with our local community. How this works out will obviously be different for everyone but there is likely to be a basic choice between photographing as an insider or an outsider.
In the early years of the twentieth century – before documentary existed as a term – photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine adopted a paternalistic approach in attempting to highlight necessary reforms. Riis in particular acted as an outsider, often using flash with no warning to the subjects that he was about to take their photographs.

In later years the FSA project, in particular Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, also photographed their subjects from an outsider’s perspective. At the time their work was published the names of individual photographers were not widely recognised, meaning their work was seen as an objective account of the poverty and suffering of the people concerned. In later years as they became better known a more nuanced view of their subjective approaches came to light. Their work was recognised as adopting a more empathic approach to their subjects that previous photographers, Riis in particular. In Britain at the same time the Mass Observation movement led to the work of Humphrey Spender similarly being initially received as objective, but later appreciated for his photographic artistry.

Later still a more authorial approach to photographic presentation led to work being presented and received as being much more subjective. The identity and aesthetic approach of an individual photographer became more prominent, so that the idea of true objectivity became much less relevant. Robert Frank’s book ‘The Americans’ was seen as a prominent example of this more authorial approach. The photographs do not necessarily show a more empathic understanding of the subjects, but instead indicate the photographer’s own thoughts and impressions. In time however this authorial subjectivity gave rise to what Martha Rosler has described as ‘victim’ photography, where the subjects were ‘not only victims of their situation, but also of the camera itself’ (Bull,2009:114). Susan Sontag also identified a power relationship between the photographer (in power) and the subject (victim).

More recently community based photography has led to a more collaborative approach to photography, where the photographer and the subject are in a much more equal relationship in the depiction. In Britain the work of The Half Moon photography Workshop and the Exit Photography group both produced photography from an insider’s viewpoint; the photographer was as much a part of the environment being photographed as the subject. Around the same time Horace Ove and Vanley Burke produced photographs of Britain’s black community.

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