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Question (continued from https://cormac513273.wordpress.com/2014/09/03/research-point-1/): Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run? Can photography change situations?

Rosler (1981) argues strongly that, even if someone benefits in the long run, it does matter if photographic work is exploitative or patronising, pointing out that such work, almost by definition, does not include any element of self-help. Here the nineteenth century photographers Riis and Hine, and a television documentary from 1960 serve as examples, the implication being that encouraging other to help the poor, to give charity, is socially pernicious because it maintains the underlying social injustices of the status quo (Rosler 1981:304, 306). Such photographs do not encourage the viewer to apportion blame or casuality, leaving such things vague in the sense of a ‘natural disaster’ (Rosler 1981:307).

W. Eugene Smith’s photographs of the people living on the Japanese island of Minamata brought to light the injustice of their suffering (Rosler 1981:308). Although Rosler uses the example of Smith’s campaign to criticise aspects of documentary photography she nevertheless declares that the work ‘was important in rallying support for the struggle throughout Japan’ (Rosler, 1981:336). Thus it is possible for photography to change situations. However, Rosler gives a counter example of the indifference with which photographers and the photojournalistic ‘system’ can treat the suffering of those they have photographed. She cites an article written about the photojournalist David Burnett who in 1973 covered the brutal coup in Chile, and related how a ‘haunting gaze’ of a prisoner caught his eye and has stayed with him. The article continued:

 Like most agency photographers, Burnett must shoot both colour and black and white to satisfy many publications in different countries, so he often works with three Nikons and a Leica. His coverage of the coup … won the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Award … ‘for exceptional courage and enterprise.’’ (Rosler 1981:315)

Rosler asks: ‘What happened to the man (actually men) in the photo? The question is inappropriate when the subject is photographs. And Photographers’ (Rosler 1981:315).


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

Continues at Research point (iii) https://cormac513273.wordpress.com/2014/09/09/research-point-iii/