• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

Alternative Discourses of Documentary Photography

Alternative Discourses of Documentary Photography

Alternative Discourses of Documentary Photography

Creating Alternative Discourses: Contemporary Photography Between Mass Media and Art Practice

Edited transcript of the lecture which took place at the conference Beyond the Documentary on 9 September 2017 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb in frames of Organ vida. International Photography Festival. Cover Photo: Ivan Petrovic, Students, 2006.


The central theme of the conference, reflected in its title Beyond the Documentary, turns out to be challenging and intriguing as it suggest documentary photography has a questioning role to play in contemporary art practice, a theme explored through examples of several different of its guises. However, these are complex issues that raise fundamental questions about the nature of so-called documentary photography whose boundaries and possibilities have been significantly expanded over the past couple of decades during which time the media landscape and visual culture have changed immensely. Photography, created for the gallery context or artist book, often incorporates documentary based narratives and more often than not is displayed side by side with other forms of photography and art, including documentary photography, in a gallery setting. This accounts for the frustration of photographers with not being able to control the context of their own work, especially once it is published in the press or online media.

Conference ‘Beyond the Documentary’, Zagreb (9 September 2017)

Despite the wide accessibility of digital media the transparency of discourses expressed through photography has not improved. Mainstream media is still under the control of governments and corporations and, therefore, the art context seems to be one of the few remaining platforms of free expression; however, it does not have the capacity to reach wider audience.

Nowadays documentary based photographic works sit easily alongside with other forms of photography and art practices. There is a thin line between the “real” and the “constructed” in photography and in visual culture, between documentary and staged approaches. These principles are often overlapping as documentary photography can be found in artistic contexts and staged photography pushes into the realm of photojournalism. Former photojournalist turned artist Luc Delahaye used large format cameras to document selected fragments of the conflict in Afghanistan and across the Middle East, entitled History (2001-2003). The resulting photographs cease to have a documentary value – in a way that would be useful for daily press – but rather resembles tableaux painting. Photographer Giovanni Troilo won a World Press Photo Award in 2015 for his intimate series of photographs entitled La Ville Noire but the prize was withdrawn for he had included a picture from Brussels among the seemingly documentary works about the city of Charleroi, Belgium. Furthermore, he included “staged” photographs – one of them showing the artist’s cousin who agreed to be photographed while having sex with a prostitute in his car.

From a very technical point of view one could claim that every photograph is a documentary one – even if it is staged; for photography is always only a recording of light reflecting off of an object or a situation. Moreover, since the earliest days of photography – as well as film – the truthfulness of images – and footages – has been challenged.

Ivan Petrovic, Documents (2008) from the Portrait series, 2005

The same applies to documentary photographs that have been staged or manipulated, be it physically or, more subtly, by controlling context of their representation. There are numerous cases of such manipulations in the history of photography.

On the other hand the perception of what is considered to be documentary in (what we like to call) contemporary photography or ‘photography as art’ is much more blurred and grey. The methods and approaches of visual storytelling have changed immensely in the past decades and they became ever more hybrid and stretchy across different genres. Similarly, in filmmaking, genres of documentary and feature film have in certain instances merged into new hybrid genres.

Furthermore, ever new, and ever more accessible technologies of image making are being developed by the visual communications industry that occupies an increasingly important role in current global economy. Digital photography has created a boom on a scale that has never been seen before and has helped increase the accessibility of photographic devices. Now anybody can be a photographer and distributor of imagery. Likewise, digital photography is even more prone to manipulation. Nowadays the truthfulness of a photograph is, therefore, certainly extremely relative.

In a way, photography can easily be defined as a form of visual storytelling that does not necessarily have anything to do with reality. Photographers who function within the realm of art may follow various principles in order to reflect the world and society around them. In art, the message of the work does not have to be based on real facts and is not burdened with the pretension of being a credible representation of the reality or truth. In contrast, across different periods of its history, photography was seen as an utterly objective medium that never conceals, lies or manipulates. But, that has repeatedly been proved wrong.

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1801

In the period before photography it was even easier to control public discourse by, for instance, depicting important political and social events in monumental historical painting. In 1801 French painter Jacques-Louis David depicted Napoleon Bonaparte in a heroic pose on a mountain pass crossing the Alps in order to create an iconic image of the emperor. The event, according to other written sources, did not happen like David depicted it but, in the absence of other available imagery, it became a fact.

Alexander Gardner, Photographic Sketch Book of the War, 1864

But even when photography appeared and was technologically developed enough to be capable of conducting war reportage the outcome was, very commonly, a carefully staged image. In order for his photographs to be more efficient and striking American photographer Alexander Gardner supposedly staged his shocking compositions of the battlefields in direct aftermath of the battles – the open fields with scattered bodies of dead soldiers. And even when modern photojournalism has been developed in the beginning of 20th century the truthfulness of the image has often been challenged and questioned. One of the most famous sources of conflicting opinion is the photograph of a fallen republican soldier in the Spanish civil war taken by Robert Capa in 1936 which is utterly ambivalent in the sense that one does not know exactly what really happened to the soldier; the picture might as well be staged.

But in a way this is not surprising. Like other content creators, photographers and other image-makers certainly have specific agendas that they tend to express – albeit with visual means. Like many photographers, journalists and thinkers, Capa clearly had his own agenda with respect to the 1930s war in Spain. However, this is the exact thing that is not expected from documentary photographers or photojournalists. Unlike other protagonists of the news industry, editors, writers or owners, photographers are expected not to manipulate their images while there is always an unmistakable agenda on the other side of the industry. Media outlets, owned and controlled by political groups or corporations, have always strived to control public discourse, often by using or encouraging the use of manipulation to present a clear message–even if untruthful.

Damir Sagolj, U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman HM1 Richard Barnett, assigned to the 1st Marine Division, holds an Iraqi child in central Iraq, 29 March, 2003 (Reuters)

One of the gravest cases of physical and contextual manipulation in recent times has been the use of Damir Šagolj‘s photograph of a wounded child being treated by US military medic during the course of bloody invasion of Iraq and civil war that followed (2003). The child’s entire family was killed by the US forces for failing to stop the vehicle on time at the check point couple of minutes prior the picture was taken. His photograph was retouched, stylised and eventually used as a cover image of pro-war advertisement in People Magazine what was just the opposite of what the photographer wanted to achieve with the photograph.

People Magazine, 2003

Wanting to reclaim control over the context of their images, many photographers thus resort to the solution of publishing a book or exhibiting their work in a gallery setting. But the damage has already been done. Mainstream magazines have enormous outreach while photobooks usually circulate among much smaller group of professionals and enthusiasts.

However, alternative ways of presenting the photographs are necessary to maintain the level of openness, ambivalence and engagement. They are somewhat proof that the notion of the documentary has undoubtedly changed.

Complex political, historical and cultural circumstances are difficult to be documented in a very comprehensive way. Moreover, history itself is always “staged” and “constructed” and it is never unambiguous but rather composed of small bits and pieces of interrelated experiences of individuals. History as such does not exist. All that exists are single incidents, single individuals, and the fleeting impressions of one’s mind. Small and fragmentary incidents of individuals make up a battle, and a war.[1] Artists and photographers are largely aware of the fact that a battle, or a war, cannot be viewed from a distance, from some elevated position, like a historical painting, but can only be seen from the perspective of its participants. Photographers, especially, (almost) always document the world, literally, from their very own perspective.

This very personal view of an event shows that documentary photography has became a way of visual storytelling that has, during its long development, adopted many variations of representation. What is technically labelled documentary photography may actually be a very tendentious, if not deliberately manipulated, process of image making to which conventions of (photo)journalistic credibility do not necessarily apply.

Hereinafter some crucial examples of the photographic oeuvres and practices from Central Europe and Western Balkans that are documentary in technical terms but have reached beyond the pure documentary form are going to be presented. They could all be defined as visual storytelling where the documentary approach has been expanded way beyond classic discourses.

Borut Krajnc, Politics, 2014

Borut Krajnc, a photographer and professional photojournalist, took up the challenge of meticulously documenting the creative election campaign of current Slovenian president during the 2012 presidential race when the then presidential candidate conducted and enacted a project of getting closer to ordinary people by labouring together with them. His photographs of a presidential candidate who vigorously works in factories and fields for the press and for the cameras maybe tendentious but they are entirely documentarian for the entire event had been staged for the mass media (by the presidential candidate’s public relations team).

Picture from the Instagram account of Slovenian president Borut Pahor, 2017

His photographs become valuable historical documents, conditioned by his worldview, experiences, aspirations and beliefs, and are much different than the official pictures controlled by the now-president’s public relations’ office. These images repeatedly appear on the president’s, Borut Pahor, own Instagram account. Krajnc thus managed to divert the official media discourse and, through framing and contextualising, succeeded in maintaining complete control over his work.

To maintain her own artistic and human integrity Aleksandrija Ajduković decided to start a project where she mocks the principles and rules of photojournalism. At the time, the artist worked as a press photographer for one of the Serbian newspapers covering black chronicles, accidents and murders. In her provoking series of photographs entitled Crime Scene (2008-) she takes selfies at the crime scenes and scenes of accidents that resulted in fatalities. Her unconventional behaviour, which was documented on snapshots, made people furious, which is itself contradictory, given the fact that the majority of the public do not mind bloodthirsty and sensational reporting of the populist ‘yellow press’ mass media.

Aleksandrija Ajdukovic, Crime Scene, 2008-

In order to showcase small and non-spectacular stories of people on the margins of society Vienna-based artist Klaus Pichler, together with the journalist Clemens Marschall, embarked on a long-term research project of documenting disappearing bars and taverns around the city that host drunkards and losers. These places, which are neither profitable nor desirable in the new organisation of the city, are loosing the battle against accelerated gentrification while the regulars (the people who frequent the bars) – mostly members of the former working class (another disappearing species) – are physically dying out. The series of photographs Golden Days Before They End (2016) present an unembellished image of society that is always – despite the prescribed image of modern lifestyle – multi-layered and diverse. Pichler’s vision does not follow the classic documentarian idea of objectivity. Instead, he presents rather intimate stories of people and places that are about to disappear forever.

Klaus Pichler, Golden Days Before They End, 2016

In the vein of street photography Matjaž Rušt and Robert Marin started creating a diary of the city where they live and work, Ljubljana, which resulted in a series entitled The Most Beautiful City (2014-). Their approach is not revealing in a broader historical sense but rather tendentious and selective, according to their own purposes. Their photographs contain a certain sense of humour despite the fact that their purpose is serious and relevant as it, indirectly, reflects the gentrification, tourist industry and real estate bubble in their city precisely by showing the other side, the margins that could not be found on official imagery or on the postcards.

Matjaz Rust & Robert Marin, The Most Beautiful City, 2014-2017

Ivan Petrović‘s projects contain small fragments of his own personal history, presented in series of projects Documents (1997-2008), such as Students where he documented a formative part of his own life while looking for a home in the city of Belgrade, to which he moved from a peripheral town. He ended up living within student communes that, ironically, are a common source of housing for many people, not only students. In the series Vitak he documented his involuntary participation in the war in Kosovo, during the years1998-1999, as a member of a reserve military unit. His personal reflections upon the conflict expose his own doubts and misgivings about the role of an individual in the society and the creation of the media discourse – and of history.

Ivan Petrovic, Vitak, 1999

By appropriating media images Davor Konjikušić is reflecting on history as it is being made during the period of the biggest influx of refugees and migrants into Europe; the period that will remain marked by the widespread appearance of hate speech and acceptance of the violation of human rights. However, the photographer did not follow the principles of photojournalists who played a crucial role in creating certain kind of compassion with their heart-breaking images of the people fleeing their homes. Instead, he appropriated impersonal images of the people seen through advanced military tracking devices to reflect on the status of the individual during a period of collective historical turbulence.

Davor Konjikusic, Aura, 2016

Although created consciously and intentionally Jaka Babnik‘s Why So Serious? (2017) series is not a conventional photographic topography. The object of study is all too vague and elusive. The work, in fact, represents a study into the various purposes of living spaces. The main subjects of his study are temporary or permanent (mostly architectural) structures that have lost their original purpose, or maybe never even had one, and are therefore considered to be paradoxes within their environments. However, by not specifying their exact place and time, he gives these images universal value and symbolises an alternative to the common aspiration for rigorous, sensibly organised outside environment.

Jaka Babnik, Why so serious?, 2017

Much more non-linear and ambivalent subjects are created by photographers who do not really reflect on events around them, in the way that they would have to document them for say a history book, but rather strive to visualise their inner questions, thoughts and doubts. In this instance images are re-evaluated and used in a more indirect manner. In her project Burden of Freedom (2015) Emina Djukić tries to create a narrative about her life during a life-changing situation when she found she had all the freedom to decide on where and how to turn the course of her life. In an attempt to visualise her intimate drama, when the freedom became a burden, she collected and confronted images from different contexts. Instead of being an image hunter she became an editor of her own archive in progress where the work is based on visual sensation and relationships between different images.

Emina Djukic, Burden of Freedom, 2014

In the Anatomy of False Memories (2015-) project Vanja Bučan moves away from the straight documentary approach into ambivalent conceptual practice based on staged images in order to discuss complex phenomena of memories that are able to accumulate, transform or vanish. The anatomy of false memory is a state in which people remember things which have not really happened which is a consequence of trauma or a strong emotional upheaval.

Vanja Bucan, Anatomy of False Memory, 2015-

Although conceptually influenced by various forms of cultural production, film, music, visual arts as well as real life, the artistic practice of Peter Rauch is above all related to photography. Primarily educated as an architect he is engaged with visual investigations of space, relations of artificially produced environments and placement of humankind in its own world. Furthermore, by questioning the self-evidence of certain relations and structures within the everyday he generates visual metaphors, situations created only for photographs that are focused towards the so-called intermediate places and strange passages of monumental architecture.

Peter Rauch, More Objects, 2014

These are just a few examples of visual storytelling that uses principles of documentary photography; however, the intentions and conceptions of these lens-based artists are much more diverse and more complex. Aware and wary of the relativity of history and media reporting, they tend to recreate the complexity and indeterminacy of events in the lives of the individuals or collectives they portray. It is, as Joan Fontcuberta wrote in his essay on the ‘truthfulness’ of photography entitled Documentary Fictions, “We agree that photographs are not literally true representations of facts. However, that they are pure fictions with no relation to the world is far more doubtful proposition.”[2] Photography, visual culture and life itself therefore dwell in a frail equilibrium between these two propositions.



[1] Nicola Chiaromonte, Fabrizio at Waterloo, The Paradox of History, London 1970, pp 4-5

[2] Joan Fontcuberta, Documentary Fictions; Pandora’s Camera. Photogr@phy After Photography, Barcelona 2014, p 105


© Miha Colner, January 2018; proof reading by Ana Cavic