Photographs – object, document or art.

Some fractured thoughts on the role of the photographic document in contemporary art practices.

The phrase most commonly associated with photographic images is “Capturing the moment”, but with regards to the photograph’s role as a document, this phrase should read as “capturing a moment” or more accurately “ capturing a version of a moment”

Again the debate seems to revolve around our concepts of truth and reality and the influences of photographs or art generally on our notions of this.

What is truth / reality?

Some definitions according to the Oxford Dictionary online:

Truth –

1. the quality or state of being true,

2. that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality,

3. a fact or belief that is accepted as true.

Reality –

1. the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them,

2. the state or quality of having existence that is absolute, self-sufficient, or objective, and not subject to human decisions or conventions.

If we take these definitions as correct we must ask the question, can any form of art actually affect reality or simply our concepts of reality. But secondly, by affecting and influencing the latter, can art then have a chance to make us undertake social or cultural change, thereby altering future reality.

On the individualised nature of truth:

Even when people take part in the same conversation or witness the same event, they come away with sometimes shockingly different understandings of the events (truth, reality). This is particularly understood in the realms of police detection work, where witness interviewers have to be specially trained in “cognitive interview techniques” in order to achieve any understanding of the actual events (R. Edward Geiselman and Ronald P. Fisher).

Versions of “truth” also depend on how much of the whole picture you see – this is particularly well illustrated by a television advert for the Guardian newspaper shown in the UK in the mid 1980’s and is in my opinion one of the greatest TV ads of all time.

Here three cameras are positioned around a staged narrative.

  • The first camera sees a youth with a skinhead haircut begin to run from a street corner. Our associations of this type of personal appearance with criminal activity and violence makes us assume that he is involved in some sort of trouble – either running to or from it.
  • The second camera (sited behind him but with a limited view and time frame) sees the youth appear to try to wrestle a man’s briefcase from him – again the youth’s appearance and our experiences and associations give us the impression that he is simply a mugger attacking his victim.
  • The third and final camera is set so that it picks up all the relevant visual information and we see that the youth is actually saving the man from a falling load of bricks.

The ad strapline is “The Guardian – The whole picture”.

As stated in my previous blog contribution on the A-Z of aesthetic journalism, conventional journalism is almost always delivered with bias either: personal from the journalist, corporate, or institutional. However, most people do not believe all that they read or see in the media and press, albeit their only source of information in most instances. Nevertheless, whilst the majority of the population maintain a healthy degree of scepticism regarding these sources, they cannot help but be influenced by this information to a greater or lesser extent.

Finally, on the development of conceptual photography:

After reading Steve Edwards on “photography out of conceptual art” I must admit to being left unclear as to the difference between the “art” nature of Allan Sekula’s “Fish story” and a simple tv documentary on the same subject – what is it that makes this piece of work art and not just a documentary? These photographs where meant to be seen as “part of a carefully edited narrative sequence”, interposed with text (information), which included descriptive captions, anecdotes, observed details and connections. – how is that different to a tv documentary. Any good television documentary makers do exactly that – Is it simply the lack of flow of explicit verbal narration, or the ambiguity of some of the images that makes one art and one just a good informative tv program????

On the other hand, the forms of conceptual photographs that are staged or altered in order to bring in subtle nuances and tensions between different semiotic signs, is clearly an art form in my opinion, albeit one that is increasingly used in the advertising world.

Post script – I was just about to post this blog when I noticed that my own feelings on the “truth” issue almost exactly mirror those of Laura’s in her blog entitled “ Who’s “truth” is it anyway?”.


Oxford Dictionaries [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 10 January 2011].

Edward Geiselman, R.E  and Fisher, R.P., 1988. The cognitive interview: An innovative technique for questioning witnesses of crime. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 4(2), pp2-5.

Edwards, S., 2004. Photography Out of Conceptual Art. In: G. Perry and P. Wood eds. Themes in Contemporary Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp 137- 180.


About clairezammitart

Multi-media fine artist Based in London
This entry was posted in photographic document in contemporary art, tp1011 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Photographs – object, document or art.

  1. paula roush says:

    Claire, your post raises interesting issues in relation to the difficulty we have (across different professions) in defining what is truth/reality; you bring in the area of cognition and crime solving, similarly Hito Steyerl in ‘Documentary Uncertainty’ (2007) describes such difficulties in art theory, a field of enquiry where those terms are also difficult to define. Surprisingly, the Guardian advert translates this problem quite well into a visual illustration; however, their claim to the whole picture appears at odds with the partial perspective attached to any representation of reality, a paradox they dont seem to account for!
    Re; the debate surrounding documentary and art, that is a lot to be said and if you have the chance, read Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Allan Sekula: photography between discourse and document’ in the book Fish Story, where he analyses the complex relationship of Sekula’s work with the art world. He writes: “The relationships between the discursive field of photography and the discursive field of artistic production are reconfigured within each artistic generation according to the needs and laws governing social specularity…the reception history of Allan Sekula’s photographic work provides an exemplary case of the official avant-garde and museum culture’s marginalization of those practices whose proximity to the “base” of the photographic genres is perceived as threatening to the high-art status of the newly accredited photographic objects…”

  2. Pingback: Voicing of “Other” in history | thinking practices

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