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This blog entry is a continuation of entry Research point (i) – Paul Seawright’s series ‘Sectarian Murders’ At: https://cormac513273.wordpress.com/2014/09/30/research-point-i-paul-seawrights-series-sectarian-murders/

Paul Seawright’s argument centres on a dilemma of documentary photography between those who see the photograph as a ‘re-presentation of nature itself, as an unmediated copy of the world’ (Sekula 1982: 86) and those who see a ‘subtle artistic construct of fictive fact that takes us much closer to the essence of the reality in question than a straightforward replication of the visible’ (Weski, 2003: 23-27). However, these two poles can be shown to be more of a continuum than opposites. For example the documentary photographers of the 1930’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographic project would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film — the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry (Sontag, 1977:6). Thus any photographic process is a mix of both a mechanical objective ‘trace’ stencilled off the real (Sontag, 1997:154), an unmediated copy of the real world (Sekula, above), and a subjective ‘witness’ to reality, the term ‘witness’ implying misunderstanding, partial information (Wells, 1996: 28), as well as artistic intent.

In this mix of objective and subjective the art photographer seeks to have the ambiguous (subjective) remain but not so much that the image ‘becomes meaningless’ (Catalyst: Paul Seawright, 2014). To be successful the image should succeed ‘in penetrating more deeply into the object’ (Weski, 2003: 23-27). Weski (2003: 23-27) makes this point in relation to the work of Walker Evans of whom he says that it was ‘not the photographic document, in a scientific sense, that was of interest’ to the Evans, but ‘the subjective view expressed through the ‘documentary’ image’. More generally, such photographers:

set up a dialogue with the object through their compositional approach in which we, as viewers, can also participate. Because they see viewers as equal players in the analysis of reality, and allow for the possibility of individual interpretations, their images drop anchor in our memories and little by little take effect there. These pictures are not about rapid consumption, but about a slower reception and a deep level of understanding both in terms of their imagery and their content – they are about experiencing the world primarily through seeing. And this process can influence our perception to such an extent that when we come upon the same objects in real life, we still see them in the light of the work of art. Whenever this happens it is as though the photographer has successfully colonised our subconscious and sensitised us to a different ways of understanding the world (Weski, 2003: 23-27).

Paul Seawright argues that his work finds the correct balance or mix between the purely objective (reportage) and the purely subjective (total ambiguity) and it is this that makes it ‘good art’ (Catalyst: Paul Seawright, 2014).


Catalyst: Paul Seawright Pres. Seawright. IWM (2014) 2 mins At: https://vimeo.com/76940827 (Accessed on 01.10.14)

Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography, London: Penguin

Wells, Liz (2006) Photography: A Critical Introduction, New York: Routledge

Weski, Thomas (2013) ‘Cruel and Tender’ In: Dexter and Weski (ed.) Cruel and Tender London: Tate