User:Luisa Moura/graduation seminar/thesis/final

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Thesis excerpt: Introduction

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This study began with the acknowledgement that given social contents would be permanently photographed in the same manner, which would render them inevitably similar. Similarity allows the recognition of a concept, in this case social issues, as something objectified enough to be observed in a given manner. What is interesting here is not only that concern gets an actual visual outlook, but that its aesthetics define the relationship that one is expected to have with the topic. During the process of the research I acknowledged that the photographs in question belong to the social documentary genre. It is therefore in this manner that the topic will be further addressed; the focus of the thesis became the genre in itself. Documentary photography seems to imply a number of compositional elements that transmit a sense of authenticity. The composition is dynamic (no vertical lines, spatial distortion); people are submitted to a broader context and are often not aware of the camera (cropped bodies and marginal position of individuals within the frame); the light is low and frequently inadequate to clearly distinguish subjects or objects (blurred, dark or over exposed); the colors are often intense in contrast, ranging from black to deeply saturated bright tones (non harmonic balance between darker and lighter zones). The display of intimacy and private objects reinforce the authenticity of the capture, dragging the photograph away from the realm of common portraiture; individuals appear to have no chance to stage their own image. The documentary aesthetics attempt to reinforce the sense that the camera is an objective witness of reality; that what it frames is an actual bit of life and not a photographer’s subjective choice:

The rhetorical strength of documentary is imagined to reside in the unequivocal character of the camera’s evidence, in an essential realism (…) Vision, itself un-implicated in the world it encounters, is subjected to a mechanical idealization. Paradoxically, the camera serves to ideologically naturalize the eye of the observer (Sekula, 1979. p.172)

To deliberately neglect the camera’s capacity to produce sharp and light images has a very strong effect in the manufacture of an authentic scene. The capture is so truthful and spontaneous, that not even a sophisticated professional camera is able to be ready for it; reality must be stronger than any mechanical attempt to grab it. The error in the pictures is a powerful sign of its authentic nature; it suggests a misfit between representation and reality. This is essential to believe that reality surpassed the medium and is able to travel, in its pure state, from the outer world into our perception. This means that social vulnerability is represented by a medium that denies its very existence; or that claims to be totally neutral. The public is invited to consider what is represented as a bit of pure reality and to ignore the fact that its framing as such is a purely subjective choice.

In principle, documentary photography has an informative agenda that is explicit and transparent; it implies a sequence of photographs, not a single point of view; it claims to not interfere with the scene it witnesses; it involves an ethical concern. The very choice to document, determines the urgency of the topic in society’s consciousness. It renders a given context as something that must be seen, considered and ultimately acted upon (Tagg, 1988, p.8-9)

The material further displayed with the text relates to social documentary photography and photojournalism, including both contemporary and historical references. The selection stays within the field of social conflict, living or working conditions and leaves out situations of war, famine or natural catastrophes. It is in the illustration of everyday ordinary issues that the analysis of these photographs seems relevant. When the coverage refers to contexts that are distant, violent or enormously tragic, the theme in itself already packs the content of the photographs into the realm of the exotic. But what happens when the theme is ordinary, close and familiar? The documentary format, by electing given individuals to be looked upon within particular aesthetics, has the powerful capacity to render them exotic. The documentary lens is some sort of exoticizing tool, once it isolates the individual from the complexity of his existence into a simplified, manufactured narrative. And what does it mean for one’s identity to be photographed in this manner? What does it mean politically to perceive the unemployed, the elderly or the poor as someone exotic and not as peers with the same rights, capacities and democratic duties? The individual portrayed in this manner is not only rendered exotic, but his exceptional nature is also assumed as truthful as it could possibly be; the individual is not like the representation, the individual is the representation. Considering this, to understand the political meaning of documentary photography and its casual use in alien circumstances is fundamental. The use of this visual grammar changes deeply the way a photograph and its contents get to be perceived. Documentary form not only shapes an aesthetic way of looking at, but also delimits the field of issues that the collective opinion ‘shall’ be concerned about.

The thesis is organized in three parts: context, analysis and reflection. It starts with a historical thread that helped me to speculate about the origin, development and critical perception of the genre. The following chapter regards the analysis of contemporary case studies and the visual mapping of references. The last chapter reflects on the mechanisms of empathy or detachment associated with the documentary format. Ultimately, the study reflects on the notion of social concern by the very way it gets to be represented and perceived. What does it say about human rights, social identity or the exercise of citizenship?

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