Documentary Photography Part One

by Ivan Riascos

This is a prelude to my critic on the current exhibitions at the Southeast Museum of Photography at Daytona Beach, FL:

I’ve been viewing photography shows for a long time and my tastes have changed over the years.  For example I use to love documentary photography, but now I don’t like seeing several paragraphs explaining to the viewer what is taking place in the photo, this is why books were invented.  Yes, I do know of art exhibitions were the literature is vital to understanding the artwork, but to me documentary photography has evolved to a different level over the years where this is not necessary.  The problem is in the old saying “A picture is worth a thousand words,” Photographs can have many different meanings and if the picture needs a paragraph or more explaining what is going on in the picture is the photograph really working as what the photographer intended? Or is it the curator’s decision in placing this information since they feel the need to make sure the masses will have an understanding of what the intentions are of the photographer.

Documentary photography is a very difficult genre where the belief among documentary photographers is that they are taking images of what is “reality.”   They believe they are capturing a story to document and make aware of an issue, war, or newsworthy.  Since the time of Edward Curtis’ documentation of Native Americans, the history of photography has shown that the photographer yields his will of the subject matter with the click of the shutter.  A photo is but a fraction of time.  We don’t know and will never know what happen before or after the picture was taken.  Conceptual art has tackled this theme to question how photography works starting with the artworks of Joseph Kosuth and John Hilliard to contemporaries such as Joan Focuberta, and Vik Muniz.  Photos have been altered since its invention.  We want to believe what is transpiring in the photo is real, but we then question if it has been “Photoshopped” if we have a hard time grasping the reality.

(To be continued in my next post.)