Photographic Truth, Part II

Years ago I sold some photographs as stock photographs. I pretty much quit after my young daughter saw one of my photos in a book and pointed out that the focus of the book was contrary to my values.  The problem was not just the lack of control I had over the way stock photographs were used.  It was, and is, the ambiguity inherent in most photographs and the implications this ambiguity has for truthfulness.

Andy Grundberg puts it like this in his 1981 essay, “The Foreign and the Fabulous:” “Photography is like language. It can be employed in the service of the sublime, the ridiculous, or the desultory; it can reveal truth or distort it.  But despite Edward Steichen’s hortation that the goal of photography is to explain man to his fellow man, the fact is that photographs suggest much but explain very little.”  Grundberg continues:  “…without language, the meaning of a photograph is inherently ambiguous.”  (Crisis of the Real: Writings on Photography Since 1974)

Photographs are powerful, and visual ways of knowing and communicating are essential, especially in this age of electronic media.  Often – as in art generally – ambiguity is a key to an image’s power: ambiguity allows us to experience images in multiple and personal ways.  But photographs as history, as journalism, as a documentation of “reality,” often need words to ground them.  Without this grounding they can easily be misread or misused. Furthermore, without words our understanding is likely to be superficial.

Documentary and journalistic photographs tend to be of people and events.  These by themselves do not describe or explain causes or even trends.  Some documentary photographers are trying to use their medium to explore large forces and trends such as globalization or power relationships (e.g. Dianne Hagaman, How I Learned Not To Be A Photojournalist) but this requires not only creativity but words in various forms:  description, interviews, analysis, even poetry.

Several photo books from South African illustrate this.  Its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (often cited, rightly or wrongly, as an application of restorative justice) has been extensively covered by journalists and academics.  One of the most nuanced and provocative treatments I have seen is photographer Jillian Edelstein’s Truth & Lies:  Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (2001).  The  jacket calls it a “collective portrait” of a country going through an extraordinary transition from apartheid and violence.

The photographs themselves are varied and powerful.  The majority are portraits; in a few, perpetrator and victim pose together.  Some – like the portrait of death squad leader Dirk Coetzee with his gun, or Mrs. Seipel with the man who killed her son Stompie – are astonishing.  Other photographs document historic and symbolic places or objects.  While the portraits helps us to connect with the real people involved – perpetrators, victims, key historic figures such as Mandela and Tutu  – what makes this work so rich is its grounding in words:  interviews, descriptions, an essay by Truth Commissioner Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (whose book A Human Being Died That Night is a “must-read.”). They provide a more specific and much deeper understanding than would be possible with the photographs alone.

Although Truth & Lies does not purport to provide a deep analysis or comprehensive picture of the TRC, the view it offers is multi-layered and nuanced, reflecting the many paradoxes and ambiguities of this story.

A more recent book (2004) by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin gives a glimpse into the complexity of the new South Africa. It is less ambitious than Edelstein’s, consisting of  color portraits of a variety of people along with their words or stories.  Mr. Mkhize’s portrait & other stories from the new South Africa opens with these words:  “Mr. Mkhize has been photographed twice before in his life.  The first was for his Pass Book, which allowed the apartheid government to control his movement.  The second was for his Identity Book, which allowed him to vote in the first democratice elections in 1994.  Ten years later, we took his picture for no official reason.” Without words, this would be just another book of interesting faces.

David Goldblatt has been photographing in South Africa for over 50 years.  His 2005 photo book Intersections also has a documentary element but is framed more explicitly as a work of art than the two books mentioned above.  It contains large, carefully-composed images, often of places but sometimes of people.  The photos are expected to stand pretty much alone, however.  There are extended descriptive captions but they are in the back of the book and easily overlooked.  The essays in the book include an interview with the photographer and two essays about him and his work.  I like the book and have it in my collection but it does not tell me as much about South Africa as did some of his earlier work exploring the nature of apartheid. (See, for example, his classic Some Afrikaners Photographed in its new edition, Some Afrikaners Revised.)

None of this is to say that photographs cannot stand on their own.  Many can, and should, but it depends on our intent.  If our goal is to help the viewer confront and understand historical reality, we may need to add words.

(Note:  See my January 30, 2010 entry for “Part I”)