OCA Thames Valley Group Meeting 17th August 2013: (B) Discussing Martha Rosler’s work

 Martha Rosler In, Around and Afterthoughts (1981)

This was our ‘homework’ for theoretical discussion. Generally, I think it’s important to first have a look at an author’s context and general attitudes and beliefs so that I can take this into account. This time I thought I knew what she was about and so spent more time in reading the piece (three times), making notes, and making assumptions that were sometimes erroneous.  This is partly due to my own experiences at the time she was writing and also because I found her frustrating to read mainly because she seemed to wander around the years and switch between them as if her readers already knew what she was talking about – like a conversation amongst old friends; an in-group discussion. Of course, that’s what she was doing to some extent and I’ll come to that later. It was also a “This is so” analysis of documentary photography rather than a balanced view, looking at it from all aspects.  Whenever that happens I do tend towards looking for arguments against and know that I have to watch out for that – otherwise I’m doing whatever I’m complaining about!

Martha Rosler  (b. 1943) is an American artist who works with multi-media.”Her work deals with the separation of the public and private sphere, exploring issues from everyday life and the media to architecture and the built environment”. She is also a writer. In, around, and afterthoughts, is a 1981 critical essay exploring these questions more systematically and attempting to develop criteria to define contemporary photographic activities as meaningful social practice. What Rosler appears to be saying is that, in the earliest years, ‘documentary’ photographers were using their images to show how the “underclass’ of society lived and to gain some amelioration of their conditions. This was from humanitarian attitudes but also to encourage charitable giving to prevent social unrest.  In Rosler’s view such Charity “is an argument for the preservation of wealth” and “the need to give a little in order to mollify the dangerous classes” (p. 177, 2004).

In the 1930s (In the US) Roosevelt’s Administration responded to the Depression by instituting a “New Deal” – Relief (for the unemployed and poor); Recovery (of the economy) and Reform (of the financial system). One example of this was Farm Security Administration (FSA) created in 1937 that had a special photographic section  Again the images were used to gain sympathy for the plight of the poor and also to encourage the population to accept the New Deal and the move towards social reform.  The photographs achieved the aims of the FSA and did bring in money for general relief. However,  Rosler refers in particular to the photograph of Florence Thompson taken by Dorothea Lange; how Florence Thompson became a ‘symbol’ of the Depression and yet did not directly benefit Florence and her family (p. 185, ibid). All this is what Rosler terms “liberal documentary”. “Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome” neither the victim nor the oppressor are blamed, “unless they happen to be under the influence of our own global enemy, World Communism”.

As I wrote earlier, Rosler does tend to skip around the years so I am making my own ‘logical’ order here.  She moves on to state how, “ 60s radical chic has given way to eighties’ pugnacious self-interest” (p.180) so that in the 1960s, photographers took the view that they were not there to reform but to show “what is” (I think of Robert Frank and William Klein here for instance) and thence, as photography moved into the Art gallery photographers aspired to achieve a higher status and fame. Her conclusion is

Perhaps a radical documentary can be brought into existence. But the common acceptance of the idea that documentary precedes, supplants, transcends, or cures full substantive social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary” (ibid, p. 196).

In our group discussion we identified these different stages and particularly talked about photo-journalism; the role of war photography and other documentary that portrays misery and powerlessness. Does that change anything? If not, what’s the point. Are we as photographers just exploiting our subjects to take photographs that people will look at for an instant and then move on?

During the discussion I told myself that we were really only talking about an extreme – war photography and similar.  I began to  think about documentary photography that had influenced change, even on a more individual scale. Dana Popa and her project around sex-trafficking and how this work has informed a project to assist the victims. Jodi Bieber  and how her photograph of Aesha Mohammadzai the young Afghan woman mutilated by her husband’s family, led to free reconstructive surgery in New York. I hope that there are many other similar stories of the power of photographic images to influence change, but I still cannot help but feel despondent that, whatever, is done violence and war continue unabated so, is there any point?

Reading about “Radical Documentary” I began to think that this was concerned with marching alongside protesters; taking part in protests; gaining publicity for radical views. I think I was imagining Rosler as similar to the young Jane Fonda.  I was also linking into my experiences of social work training in 1978/9 at the mention of documentary photographers and ‘social work’. In the first term we had a series of lectures on radical social work – Thomas Szasz and “the myth of mental illness”; Howard Becker’s Labelling Theory; how social work was an agent of an “iron fist in velvet glove’ governmental authority, just placing a sticking plaster on the fundamental ills of the capitalist society. I remember feeling horrified and saying there was no way I wanted to be involved in that kind of oppression.   At the same time, I had this “Yes but ….” view. Surely that didn’t mean that one shouldn’t do anything right now to help people whilst waiting for the revolution to occur. There are so many shades of grey.

That’s the danger of making assumptions. I had to come back home after the Thames Valley Group meeting and read further to gain a more informed understanding.

Further Reading on Martha Rosler and “Thinking Photography”

Postmodern ideas encouraged new thinking around social documentary photography and Martha Rosler (along with Allan Sekula and Fred Lonidier was a member of an informal study group formed in California during the mid-1970s. The three of them were soon at the core of what was being called in the mid-1980s

…the new documentary, or the new social documentary, created by sophisticated, college-educated, politically active intellectuals who wanted to use photography as an important element of social critique.

(p. 438, M.W. Marien, 2002)

The group was influenced by Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and the breaking down of the “aura” of the original work of art.  They were also influenced by the thinking of Bertolt Brecht – his notion that “less than ever does a simple reproduction of reality express something about reality” and Brecht’s understanding of how to affect an audience with a story. Brecht believed in constructing obviously artificial situations and disrupting the anticipated narrative with the unexpected.

The group linked conceptual Art with political protests/activism and so helped to form a new philosophy and practice that was very different from that of earlier documentary photographers. They wanted to find a way to comment on social oppression without generating what they called ‘victim photographs’ that only evoked self-satisfying sympathy or voyeurism among viewer.

Assumptions about the  causes of poverty and the power of photography to report them were challenged in relation to renowned images from the past (hence In, Around and afterthoughts) Presentations of gender and ethnicity in film and advertising were examined and also incorporated into visual analysis of the power of images. There was one comment by Mary Warner that reverberated with my own perception, mentioned above, that Rosler was writing for an in-group that already knew what she was talking about:-

The new documentarians wrote in language that required familiarity with history and philosophical distinctions, an obvious obstacle to non-intellectual audiences (M.W. Marien 2002, p. 441)

In the early to mid 1970s, Rosler had made three photomontage series called Bringing Home the War” (c. 1976-72) that combined mass-media images of the conflict in Vietnam with pictures taken from design and architectural magazines. Almost 20 years afterwards she revived this series in response to the Iraq War.

Watching this video and seeing the images on websites such as this  I could see Brecht’s influence. It made me think of  his War Primer   and also the recent  re-worked version War Primer 2 by Broomberg & Chanarin  that did take my breath with its poignant images and words despite my being used to seeing countless images of war, death, violence and bloodshed. I think this is what Martha Rosler and her colleagues were aiming to achieve; to find this new way of drawing attention. The main problem as I see it is that as with any genre the viewer gets used to seeing a particular type of image so that the new quickly becomes the old and then yet newer ways have to be found.

Some further thoughts

Subsequently, John Umney sent the Thames Valley Group a link to a recent post on Duckrabbit   with John Macpherson’s conclusion that maybe we should “accept that it [the war photographer’s job] may only usefully serve to mark, and honour, the passing of the fallen, and as a consequence to remind we who are left alive how lucky we are”. I agree John Macpherson’s final sentence that this is an unsettling and disquieting notion and yet it fits with the view of documentary photography that Martha Rosler pointed towards in 1981 and is still working to overcome.   I feel more heartened by a link from the Duckrabbit post to  a post about faked images and separating fact from fiction on the BBC blog News from Elsewhere

I’ve left to the last another issue that the Thames Valley Group touched upon which concerns what makes an ethical photographer and documentary photography.  Aspects which came up for me where should documentary images appear on a gallery wall; the importance to me of explaining and engaging with people; how my practice fits with my personal conscience. Other suggestions were that documentary photography should make people ask questions and should represent some type of truth/reality. I think the last is probably the hardest given that we all have our own versions of the truth and is there such a thing as a generally accepted truth. this is something I need to work on more.

20th August 2013



Rosler, M ( ) In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) (1981in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings 1975-2001 (2004) MIT Press, London

Marien, M.W. (2002) Photography: A Cultural History 3rd Ed, Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London



http://duckrabbit.info/blog/2013/08/war-porn-blood-loss-and-living/ [accessed 19.8.2013]








26 thoughts on “OCA Thames Valley Group Meeting 17th August 2013: (B) Discussing Martha Rosler’s work

  1. If the only point of making documentary images turns out to be that it gets in front of people for a few seconds/minutes, then it’s achieved its purpose. Change can only come by being informed, if we’re not informed things don’t change, and if that’s the case we’d all still be serfs. Yes the news media makes money from what we do, but they’d make it anyway, and surely it’s better for them to make it whilst helping to make change than to make the money to stop change?

    • If I had to keep on and on informing people about the same thing though I think I’d get so frustrated that I’d then want to go on and think of other strategies I could use to achieve change.

      • All successful campaigns that bring about change require many strategies to appear to remain fresh, and whilst photography on it’s own could never bring about change, images along with words will make change happen more quickly because the saying ‘seeing is believing’ still holds true for a very large proportion of society.

    • There is an assumption here Eddie that the ideology the particular media organisation is promoting is one which truly serves society at large and is consistent with the original intent of the photographer who made the image….this is a questionable assumption… The other thing to consider is that the context within which an image is seen will influence how it is read…

  2. I think the story about Aesha has two sides. It is good to see her treated, hopefully her life can be made more meaningful – and that is an effect that has proved positive. But did the work change attitudes in Aesha’s society, her family were affected by the events surrounding the ordeal, but have the prevailing societal, political, economic conditions changed in any meaningful way, or even at all. Siegfried has made the point very well that photography flatters itself that it has the power to produce change – for good or ill – when there’s no real evidence that things are changing. Look at the horrific situation in Syria, millions if not billions of images pouring out of the state, and whilst the world looks on, the people, on both sides of the conflict, die in their thousands. It wasn’t pictures that stopped either of the world wars. It wasn’t pictures that impeached Nixon, it wasn’t photography that ousted Sadam, it was political and economic advantage. It wasn’t pictures that ousted Morsi. We, in the west, wanted to believe the pictures we saw of Tahrir square when Mubarak was ousted, but not so now and whichever is nearest to the truth, whichever one we believe, the people died then and are dying now. And when someone tells us the truth, or at least what purports to be truth they are imprisoned for 35 years in a military gaol and branded a traitor
    I know I sound cynical, I understand that I’m holding a very trenchant line, but the politician’s position won’t be changed by pictures, they are as inured as Sontag told us we would be. Things will change when the economic and political conditions mean that commerce in the west will be improved by either intervention or spectating.

    • Not always so John. If economic motivators were the only driving factor we’d still have child labour and slavery in the States would have continued well into the 20th century. Economics is one of a number of factors, a very big one I agree, but other opinions and factors play an increasing role in modern society.

  3. Interesting post Catherine. I have read quite a bit more too since the meeting. In particular I have read several of Allan Sekula’s essays. Categorising this group of photographers as ‘new social documentarians’ is an art historian invention used conveniently organise history and is not particularly helpful. Many of the ideas underpinning the beliefs of this group still have currency. Sekula and the others did refer to Walter Benjamin and in particular the Benjamin’s reference to Brecht is much quoted. Benjamin actually quotes Brecht in full:

    “The situation is complicated by the fact that less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG tells us next to nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional. The reification of human relations—the factory, say—means that they are no longer explicit. So something must in fact be built up, something artificial, posed.”

    Sekula talks a lot about how the meaning of a photograph is inevitably subject to cultural definition – an idea which well entrenched in critical thinking today. I found the reference to a photograph of the Krupp works as a helpful example. What does such an image connote – the success of capitalism, the ruthless power of the corporate entity, the march of progress and technology, the oppression of the worker, a symbol of Nazi Germany….it all depends where one is coming from. This is why Sekula argues for a documentary form which works with both text and image or groups of images and is critical of the ‘classical’ photographic documentary form (the single image with a brief caption (or no caption)), The latter assumes that there is a universal language of photography which enables an image to convey a ‘readable’ message to the viewer – a dubious assumption!

    • So much of Brecht’s texts provide a prescient comment on today’s capitalist society I find. Moving back to war, the final statement “The goal of journalists is not to change something. Journalism is about truth and the right of people to get that truth. Afterwards we understood this situation was quite unique. We did the journalistic job and saw the consequences. Of course I have to face it and understand it, but somehow it doesn’t belong to me anymore.” from this article – http://beta.syriadeeply.org/2013/07/photographer-crossed-obamas-red-line/#.Ue-YETd8M49 – sums up, I think, the struggle between understanding the futility of documentary and the need to bear witness. Which I think speaks to Sekula’s argument of reassigning the importance of text over imagery. But then should we worry about the mutability of words?

      • We should perhaps worry about the mutability of words. But I think the idea is to provide the spectator with information and to prompt him/her to think about the issues and make up their own mind not to offer a didactic lecture on what is right and what is wrong. With this approach differing points of view are entertained.

        What I dislike most about modern journalism and why I am so disappointed with today’s BBC is that they feel that they must have a moralising opinion about everything and that they also display an arrogant self righteousness…..Much of this is fuelled by the ‘Celebrity Newscaster’ culture which harks back to notions of heroic journalism.

  4. The article about Syria was very interesting John and such a contrast with the approach taken by Broomberg & Chanarin – a dedication towards revealing the ‘truth’. For my money, the first strategy achieves so much more than the second.
    I’ve been thinking around ‘differing points of view’ and relating that to the approach that each of us might take to those types of documentary photography (even though I’m not at such a stage yet). Obviously they are at the macro level but they also provide models we can discuss.

    • Problem is though who’s truth are we talking about. The journalist was clearly embedded with the rebels. I have heard other reports which say that the insurgents themselves have been using chemical weapons to mobilise international opinion against the Assad regime.

      • I’m wondering where to go with this in terms of thinking through my own approach – some kind of artist’s statement. Wonder if this could be a future topic for the TV group – analysing an image and more semiotics.

  5. On a thread that we just started to touch before ‘time was called’ at the TV meeting (and something that Catherine mentioned almost as briefly in her blog piece), was about documentary as art; about the ethics of occupying a gallery wall with images that would perhaps in other places – the media, for example – be announced with a warning. Sekula says ‘Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” cited in the course notes Liebling 1978 p236.]
    Does this excuse the photographer from any moral obligation to record anything that might be considered as a truth?

    • Yes – I’m pondering that one. It fits with “who are the users of the images?” Dorothea Lange’s portrait of Florence Thompson has become ‘Art’ as that of many other documentary photographers. I’d have to explore more deeply to decide whether they are/were an act of self-expression though/ the photographers own version of the truth. We talked about Florence Thompson’s image becoming more than her. Could I say that Lange believed deeply about the cause of the poor and so she was expressing her self or was she just doing her job?

  6. There is so much mythology surrounding Lange’s image that I am loathed to say that any one story (or even the conflation of multiple stories for that matter) represents a truth; far better I think to focus on other ‘documentary’ images.

  7. Pingback: Talk by tom Hunter: OCA Study Visit 2nd March 2014 | People & Place

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