Questions: Is Martha Rosler unfair on socially driven photographers? 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?
It has been argued that while photographers like Jacob Riis (b.1849) and Lewis Hind (b.1874) were indeed attempting to bring about social reform, they ‘did not perceive those wrongs as fundamental to the social system that tolerated them’ (Rosler 1981:304). In other words these photographers were reformers and not revolutionaries. Yet if they were revolutionaries with the desire to radically and fundamentally change the society that bred and tolerated the conditions depicted in their photograph, would the photographs they took be substantially different to the ones that have come down to us today? At some level documentary photographs stand as mute witness. As Rosler (1981:306) concedes: ‘Arguments for reform – threatening to the social order as they might seem to the unconvinced – must have come as a relief from the potential arguments embedded in the images’ (emphasis in the original). Thus these reform-minded photographers likely knew that they were taking the risk that their pictures might precipitate the political radicalism they were intended to warn of.
If Rosler’s (1981:306) contention is accepted that ‘documentary, as we know it, carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful’, then much documentary, almost by definition, is exploitative or patronising. However, as Solomon-Godeau (1995:196) points out, Rosler’s critique of traditional documentary practice ‘was structured around an explicitly politicized analysis of how such photography actually functions’. In counterpoint to this analysis Susan Sontag’s critique of documentary practice may be characterises as ‘an investigation of the ethics of photographic seeing’ (Solomon-Godeau 1995:196). As illustration Solomon-Godeau quotes Sontag’s observation on the photography of Diane Arbus:
The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibition, freeing the photographer from any responsibility towards the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives, only visiting them. The photographer is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear. The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences or find new ways to look at familiar subjects – to fight against boredom (Solomon-Godeau 1995:195).
The above observation is apt in relation to Arbus who produced work ‘largely featuring subjects who were physically deviant (e.g. freaks) or those deemed socially deviant (e.g. transvestites, nudists)’ (Solomon-Godeau 1995:195). It is obvious that Sontag’s analysis of documentary practice would not easily encompass social reformist photographers such as Riis and Hind (above).
In addressing the question of fairness it can now be suggested that Rosler’s opinion of the socially driven photojournalists is fair within the terms of her ‘explicitly politicized analysis’ (above). However, if their work is looked as ‘an investigation of the ethics of photographic seeing’ (above) then Rosler’s critique is unfair because it denies the proposition that ‘the camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibition, freeing the photographer from any responsibility towards the people photographed’ (above).
Rosler, M (1981) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ In: Bolton, R. (ed.) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 303-340
Solomon-Godeau, A (1994) ‘Inside/Out’ In: Johnson, S. (ed.) The Everyday. London: Whitechapel, 195-204