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An Imagined Reality

Posted in PHOT 167 by Paul Turounet on January 30, 2008

Documentary photographers often see things that do not officially exist. Indignities. Cruelties. People pinned to a wall with fire hoses because they want to vote.

During the Civil Rights movement, Klansmen ran Eugene Richards out of Arkansas for taking their pictures. Earl Dotter made portraits of miners dying from black-lung disease, while both the coal companies and corrupt union officials denied the problem. Susan Meiselas photographed the corpses of villagers in El Mozote after they were shot and burned by the Salvadoran army. It took ten years before a congressional inquiry and an exhumation forced authorities to admit the massacre had happened.

A transformation occurs when you see something important that is denied by those who have not or will not see it.

– Kerry Tremain, from the introduction to Witness in Our Time – Working Lives of Documentary Photographers by Ken Light.



© Earl Dotter, John Socoski, underground coal miner at the end of the shift, Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, 1977 (left) and Susan Meiselas, El Salvador, 1980 (right)


Because of its ability to seemingly describe reality with heightened sense of fact and truth, documentary photography has been utilized as a means to bear witness to world’s events and ways of life. Originally, this type of photography functioned as a means of providing visual information, evidence, of the “real world” with the intention to bring to awareness and attention to the events of the time as historical facts. The photographs created were not concerned with the private experience of the photographer, but rather addressed an external experience of what was in front of the lens.

In considering the work of Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, the FSA photographers (Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and others), and August Sander, documentary photography has implied a practice in which the photographer examined a socially conscious concern of the time within an extended form. An extensive series of images as well as the use of text are utilized to provide an in-depth examination into a subject with the intention to suggest empathy and/or social change.


It became very apparent to me that in photographs of someone who has been victimized, about the only element the viewer of this kind of photograph can relate to is in an individual’s desire for self-respect and dignity. So, when I photograph I’m always looking for the common ground between my subject and the viewer of my photographs. – Earl Dotter from Witness in Our Time – Working Lives of Documentary Photographers


In a time of the proliferation of cable news networks and the Internet, imagery of the world’s events now happens instantaneously. The amount of coverage of our daily experiences and its rapid presentation is inescapable. In consideration of the contemporary media culture, a decrease in commissioned documentary projects and the need to shift the context of documentary photographic practice, photographers interested exploring the contemporary experiences of the “real world” are incorporating new conceptual and aesthetic strategies as a means of challenging traditional practice.



© Sebastião Salgado, from Sahel – The End of the Road (left) and Lauren Greenfield, from Girl Culture (right)


While many documentary photographers, including Ken Light, Shelby Lee Adams, Sebastião Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Lauren Greenfield, Eugene Richards, and James Nachtwey, have immersed themselves into the experiences of others in the contemporary social landscape, other photographers, such as Danny Lyon, Larry Clark and Nan Goldin have infused their observations of others with their own sense of experience. Photographers such as Fazal Sheikh, Simon Norfolk, Luc Delahaye, Paul Graham and Martin Parr are examining the social world with a measured sense of contemplation as well as challenging the traditional conventions of documentary photography in revealing a vision and voice about the real world.



© Paul Graham, from American Night


I don’t get tired of trying to understand and look at the wonderful amazing nature of what’s around us. Yes, I have dissatisfaction with classic documentary language. It was wonderful when it was invented. But it has to be alive, to grow, develop, just like the spoken word. We don’t speak the same way we spoke in 1938 or 1956, so why should we make pictures the same way? – Paul Graham from an interview with Richard Woodward



Shoot images that reflect focused attention on your curiosities and interests through your photographic vision and sense of technical execution and craftsmanship in preparation of developing a conceptually cohesive documentary photographic project. It is essential that your idea(s) reflect a sense of considered thought, active visual exploration about your interpretation of the real world and is articulated with a cohesive vision and voice.

Thinking about your conceptual concerns and what to photograph, I would propose you gravitate towards what your interests and curiosities are within the social landscape of the world we live in. How would you approach those concerns photographically to reveal what they would look like as a series of photographs? In addition to their visual engagement, what do you want the photographs to reveal, suggest or evoke, intellectually and/or emotionally, in relationship to these ideas and perceptions? Consider how your use of the camera, photographic aesthetics, materials and processes, as well as your technical execution will be utilized in making photographs that begin to suggest and inform these curiosities and ideas.

In considering your photographic vision and use of camera aesthetics, give particular attention to your use of the photographic frame, vantage point, moments of exposure and the role and use of light to reveal your interpretation of the thing itself and details, as well as materials (black & white and/or color) and processes (analog, digital and/or alternative/hybrid process). Consider various visual strategies and points of view, including the possibilities within a single frame, multiple-image sequences and series, and the juxtaposition of images (diptychs and triptychs).



For the critique (see Calendar for Due Date) and evaluation, please complete the following:

Minimum of 3 – edited contact sheets (no more than 4 images per sheet) or 12 Digital Kiosk Machine Prints (minimum size of 6×8 inches in scale) that reflect and begin to suggest the possibilities of focused attention on a conceptual concern/interest/curiosity through your photographic vision and sense of technical execution and craftsmanship.

Minimum of 4 – finished photographic prints made in the Grossmont College Analog | Digital Photography Labs.

Turn-in all critique materials in a manila envelope for evaluation and feedback.



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