Category Archives: P4: The Gallery Wall – documentary as art

P4: The Gallery Wall – documentary as art

Research point:

Look online at Paul Seawright’s work, Sectarian Murders.
• How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art? Listen to Paul Seawright talk about his work at: [accessed 24/02/14]
• What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?
• If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?

As an Irish person I have lived through ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland so it is extremely difficult for me to be impartial about these images. I had a brother who was taken in by the RUC (the northern Irish police force) for questioning for no other reason than our family surname was also borne by an IRA volunteer. As far as I know we had no family connection with this man. Even more ironic my brother was a British officer in the Royal Navy. He was home, in Belfast, on leave at the time.  This experience left an indelible mark on him and as soon as he was released he put his Belfast born wife and two children into a car and drove them south to the Republic. To my knowledge he has never returned to Belfast even for a visit. He also left the British navy, which he loved, and has never been able to maintain a secure job since. That was more than forty years ago.

So with that background I come to this work and I have to say I do not know what is the core of Seawright’s argument so it is difficult to agree or disagree with him. He talks about leaving space for the viewer to enter into the image. If the image is too explicit it becomes journalism. He also admits without the text the images are just that images. I think certain events can best be portrayed by a journalistic approach. I see very little point in this type of ‘late’ photography. It does not show, in any way, what happened at these locations, nor the lives that were left devastated by what had happened. What does it show? It shows playgrounds, beauty spots, crossroads and a rubbish tip but without the text they mean nothing. Even with the text I am unmoved despite my very personal experiences of those times. However I do feel this type of photography can be used in certain very limited circumstances. I have in mind the work of Joel Meyerowitz at ground Zero before it was cleared for the memorial. There was a point to this work. ‘Lest we forget’ could have titled the work because the place was due to be transformed.

If ‘we’ define a piece of documentary work as art does this change the meaning. It depends on who is defining what piece of documentary work. I do not find any of Seawright’s images in this series could be defined as art – they are just good images, no more for me. This is not to say that I do not think Paul Seawright has not created very artistic images from situations he witnessed in northern Ireland and elsewhere. I am thinking of the series Things Unsaid or The Orange Order  which are very artistically represented. For me images should tell their story without having to be defined as this or that type of photography.

Look at some more images from this series on the artist’s (Sarah Pickering) website.
• How do Pickering’s images make you feel?
• Is Public Order an effective use of documentary or is it misleading?
Make some notes in your learning log.

I love these images in Sarah Pickering’s Public Order series. If we look at the body of work as a whole we know that they are of some sort of set. We can see in High Street 2002 that it is just a facade. At first we think it is a film set. When I discovered it was a police training ground I felt that was fine too. Police have to learn about tricky situations just as pilots have to learn, in simulators, what to do when things go wrong. I don’t find them scary nor do I wonder what else the police get up to. I hope they are beavering away somewhere learning what to do when my online account is taken over by hackers or my village is attacked by terrorists. It is our way of life now.

I think this is a perfect use of documentary photography. It challenges us perfectly to work out what is real.Whereas I find Sanguinetti’s work very disturbing. Would she have chosen two other children who were both slim and beautiful? Did she choose these two particular children because one was very overweight and the other slim and pretty? I find the work voyeuristic. I am not interested in which images are ‘real’ and which are the children’s ‘dreams or games’. The way Sanguinetti has photographed the fat girl breastfeeding her(?) baby is distasteful.