Category Archives: P1: Documentary and social reform

P1: Documentary & Social reform (on documentary photography) (1981)

It must be noted that Rosler’s essay on Documentary Photography,(1) was written in 1981. We are reading it with the gift of hindsight.

She sets out to review the path of Documentary photography from its first appearance but the path she weaves is a bit convoluted. She was not impressed by the work or the effectiveness of the early documentary photographers. In her notes she seems to make an exception for Hine although this is not evident in the main essay. I don’t think she takes into account the circumstances under which these early photographers were working. They were very often working to a brief. This is especially the case for the FSA photographers. As we see from our notes:

Stryker would give the photographers lists of photographs he wanted them to find, for example. One such list for ‘Summer’ (Dyer, 2006, p.4) included:

  • Crowded cars going out on the open road. Gas station attendant
    filling tank of open touring and convertible cars.
  • Rock gardens: sun parasols; beach umbrellas; sandy shores with
    gently swelling waves; whitecaps showering spray over sailboat in
    distant horizon.
  • People standing in shade of trees and awnings. Open windows on
    street cars and buses; drinking water from spring or old well; shady
    spot along bank – sun on water beyond; swimming pools, rivers, and


However these restrictions do not excuse the blatant ‘staging’ of many of these ‘sets’ to obtain images which would ‘force’ change’ by confronting the middle classes with photographic evidence of the plight of the poor. Although Rosler claims that nothing was ever won by someone for someone else, through documentary photography, unless it is the collection of funds for those suffering in far away places, the FSA photographs did, in fact, influence change.

We need to ask if ‘change’ is the sole purpose of documentary photography. Can it not also be seen as a historical record. Rosler admits that this can, in fact, be the case when she considers the photographing of the Native American Indians. The descendants of these people would have had no record if it had not been for these, albeit staged, records.

She describes the people in many of the early documentary photographs as ‘victims’. There is something in this as in the case of Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. Mrs Thompson. the ‘model’ for this image, tried, unsuccessfully, to get the photograph suppressed as she felt she had got nothing from it. It is hard to say if Rosler in on the side of Lange, the photographer, or on that of Mrs Thompson when discussing the image. She quotes Lange as saying of Mrs Thompson

“She thought that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.”

but Rosler does not voice her own opinion as whether she thinks Mrs Thompson had been exploited or not preferring to use the opinion of an unnamed ‘ehtical’ photographer friend who claimed that Mrs Thompson had not, in fact, been exploited as she had agreed to have her image taken.

However I do not think one could describe the people in Jacob A Riijs Bowery images as victims. They were willing participants in the staged imagery, probably for very little recompense though.(2)

Rosler calls this early type of documentary photography “Liberal Documentary” Its message was to carry information about poverty, oppression and misfortune from powerless people to the socially powerful people with the intention of stimulating their conscience without their having to get involved with reform.

Her review jumps from these early documentary photographers to the 1960’s and 70’s when concerned travel documentary photography became ‘fashionable’. Photographers like the Smith’s, brought to her attention by Alan Sekula, went to Minemata, Japan, to photograph the devastation caused by the Chisso chemical firm. She is cynical about how the editor, Jim Hughes, portrays the Smith’s work in Camera 35 magazine. However in her notes she admits that their work seemed to have brought about change to that region.

It is evident Rosler was trying to make a case for ‘truth’ and ‘ethical standards’ in Documentary photography. She worked with Alan Sekula to try to introduce these standards. However her language often portrays very little understanding of misfortune. She mocks the new political correctness of the ’80s when alcoholism is referred to as ‘substance abuse’. Throughout her review of the early documentary photographers she  refers to ‘drunks, bums and down and outs’. What she fails to see is that alcoholism or drug addiction is no respecter of class. It is just more evident in poorer neighbourhoods, like the Bowery. it still remains behind closed doors in the wealthier parts of New York and elsewhere but the poor are out there to be exploited photographically perhaps for the price of a bottle of beer.

She introduces her own images of the Bowery, made in 1974-75,  as an attempt to show the area without victimising anyone. However I found them sterile. I do not think they would have brought about any social change for the region.

The move in the ’80 towards creating ‘art’ type documentary destined for gallery walls appears also to be anathema to her sensitivities.

I agree with Rosler’s observation that it was easier to deal with the images of poverty than with the reform required to change the situation. I do feel she has done a disservice to past documentary photographers who, in many cases, seemed to be doing their best to show the situations, they chose or were dispatched, to photograph.

I also agree with her observation, that images of poverty are more common than images of revolutionary politics. But I am not sure that  we do not yet have a real documentary

  1. Rosler M (1981). In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography). Available from: [accessed 27.9.15]
  2. Early Documentary Photography. 2015. Early Documentary Photography. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 11 October 2015]