Toward A New Documentary Expression

Stephen Mayes, former director of VII Photo Agency, considers the radically shifting terrain and new possibilities for documentary storytelling.

January 10th, 2014Stephen Mayes
It’s fitting that photographers have made artifice and experimentation a strategy in their work now that the factual credibility of most images we consume is increasingly under suspicion

Aperture Magazine Spring 2014

In twenty years of working with artists, commercial photographers, fashion photographers, and most recently with photojournalists at VII Photo (Agency), I’ve been privileged to witness transformative moments in photographers’ careers, and, very occasionally, a transformative moment in the medium of photography. None, though, match the significance of acclaimed photojournalist John Stanmeyer commenting on reaching three hundred thousand Instagram followers, observing, “We’ve got to stop thinking of ourselves as photographers. We’re publishers.” Clearly he understood that the smartphone is more than just another camera: it redefines the image maker’s role.

The consumption of information has been disaggregated, fracturing the advertising economy and multiplying the style and nature of images. A reconfigured field requires a root-and-branch reassessment of what is valuable about photography, identifying new audiences, understanding their interests, and finding new ways to communicate. Although some of the changes are painful, we have a rare and privileged opportunity to challenge the conventions that have limited the understanding of photography, and to create new models for visual storytelling.

In fact, the door is open to a much older and far deeper understanding of what it means to narrate a story. Ironically, inventing a new role for photography might mean embracing cultural references considerably older than the daguerreotype. Looking back, we don’t know if the wars of Homer’s epics actually happened. The role of the ancient storyteller wasn’t to relay facts but to impart greater truths: archetypes, emotions, political structures, and the nature of human experience. It’s only recently that we’ve conflated storytelling and factual reporting, but twentieth-century conventions are dissolving rapidly as photography explodes into the online universe.

Photographers are no longer constrained as humble suppliers to platforms managed and controlled by others; thinking as publishers allows them to choose their themes, audiences, and the means of expression and distribution. How we grasp the opportunities before us becomes partly a matter of problem solving and, more significantly, a challenge of imagination.

Although over the years theorists and practitioners have questioned, expanded, and revised the notion of documentary photography, the field has more or less remained locked into static narratives that were fixed at the point of publication—with discrete, authored story packages that illustrated people, places, and situations. Photojournalist Bill Eppridge is often cited as the poster boy for the photo essay ever since Life magazine published “Panic in Needle Park” in 1965, which epitomized the sequential format that has dominated narrative documentary for more than fifty years. Indeed, the legacy of the photographic linear narrative stretches back to the nineteenth-century magic-lantern slide show that required a sequential parade of images, and remains entrenched today in the slide shows that proliferate on magazine and newspaper websites. But these straight narratives are beginning to age out in a dynamic online environment that feeds on shared information that continues to evolve after publication. Online imagery is centered less on presenting photographs as objects of memory and more on the sharing of current experience. Pictures are endlessly streaming and reflect the messy realities of life as it’s lived. Snapchat, an application that allows a recipient a fleeting, ten-second view before the image is deleted, is the latest phenomenon, accounting for an estimated quarter of daily image uploads. Professionals no longer define the aesthetic and functions of our image culture—the vernacular is the vanguard—but that does not mean professionals can’t avail themselves of these new modes.

Indeed, documentary photographers are already experimenting with new protocols for storytelling. Chris de Bode’s powerful and evocative reportage on Bangladeshi migrant workers fleeing Libya in 2011 is remarkably innovative seen in a traditional print context, wholeheartedly embracing the story by deploying repetition of panoramic scenes of the displaced as a means of emphasizing migrant misery. Photographer Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merrill are developing something very fresh with their ongoing project Everyday Africa(see images above), an Instagram and Tumblr feed started in 2012 that reveals daily life on the continent from multiple perspectives. The group’s mission statement articulates their motivation: “As journalists who have lived and worked on the continent for years at a time, we find the extreme not nearly as prevalent as the familiar, the everyday.” Their journalistic experiment, a shared creative process among a growing group of photographers, both Africans and expatriates, harnesses the casual immediacy of the phone camera and the rolling evolution of multiperspective narrative to reframe the widely accepted and hackneyed story of Africa as a place of widespread tragedy to that of a continent where people live, love, and work, like anywhere else. Their approach is made possible by social media, where some fifty-six thousand followers (as of last fall) become participants by adding their commentary, underscoring how photography now operates as a conversational tool.

If such a shift—from static linear narrative told by a single author to dynamic time-based stories told from multiple perspectives—were the only major change, we’d already be living in very different times. But there are other notable changes to consider. Documentary, long an interpretative genre, has generally been regarded as a vehicle for factual information, but this is up for review as audiences shift effortlessly between social media, traditional media, game consoles, and galleries, becoming accustomed to reading images less literally. Over the years, new approaches, some provocative, to documentary have stirred debate in the field. Luc Delahaye famously upset many traditional photojournalists when his practice dramatically shifted in the early 2000s and he abstracted his role as a documentarian by mixing art and reportage. Antonin Kratochvil’s multimedia 2007 project Roadworks blurred all the boundaries of constructed art and reportage when he took the autobiographical words of Sgt. Jack Lewis describing a military episode in Iraq and re-created the scene in a studio with actors. The piece was part of a larger work whose value was recognized, receiving an Oscar nomination for best documentary, but left Kratochvil’s colleagues and clients at VII scratching their heads about the project’s place in a photojournalistic context. Today, the challenge is for photographers to build on such precedents and push further into experimental spaces.

It’s fitting that photographers have made artifice and experimentation a strategy in their work now that the factual credibility of most images we consume is increasingly under suspicion because of uncertain provenance and concern about manipulation and falsification. Less discussed, perhaps, yet equally significant is how images are increasingly divorced from context: if context defines meaning, there’s a serious credibility issue when images are plucked from an intended context and thrown into unexpected environments. This happens on the Internet and mobile media on a grand scale, as the 2012 “text from Hillary” meme demonstrated so dramatically when thousands of social media users repurposed images of the then secretary of state, using her cellphone. In his 2009 book After Photography, writer Fred Ritchin describes the online image as a sort of quantum photography whereby pictures exist simultaneously in multiple contexts, often with contradictory meanings. In short, it’s downright difficult to trust any picture that we see online, where the vast majority of images are consumed, influencing our reading of images elsewhere.

Even the fact-driven field of hard photojournalism has evolved to embrace metaphorical references. Building on the symbolic journalistic language developed by Gilles Peress, Kratochvil, and others, photographers using camera phones have somersaulted into new territory. The smartphone aesthetic is casually intimate and connects easily with an audience that may be using the same technology on a daily basis. Ron Haviv and Michael Christopher Brown both made work in Libya in 2011 using their mobile-phone cameras to reveal, through a fluidly vernacular style, the emotional realities and physical circumstances of their subjects.

Experimentation does not supplant the evidential role of the image, though it does force a reconsideration of the photograph as “evidence.” Photography now exists in a world that is fluent in visual metaphor and understands the image beyond the limitations of the merely representational. The possibilities for richer, more nuanced forms of storytelling are ever-present, opening the door to profound modes of communication—making it all the more important that photographers, and all participants in the field, take advantage of what this transformative moment offers, so that like the earliest storytellers, the next generation of documentarians can fully impart tomorrow’s greater truths.