Look online at Paul Seawright’s work, Sectarian Murders.
• How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art? Listen
to Paul Seawright talk about his work. What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?
• If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its
Look at some more images from Sarah Pickering’s website.
• How do Pickering’s images make you feel?
• Is Public Order an effective use of documentary or is it misleading?
Make some notes in your learning log.
Paul Seawright (GB 1965) lives and works in Belfast. His series “Sectarian Murders” does not show any murders, nor any evidence of them. Instead he approaches the subject rather obliquely, producing images which he took at the sites of sectarian murders. The images are accompanied by a short text which states the date of the murder and a brief description of the circumstances. The photographs feature adjacent components – a dogs head, a playground slide or roundabout – which do not appear to be relevant to the actual killings but serve to emphasise the banality of the setting which is in stark contrast to the drama of the executions.
In the video Seawright dwells on the balance between allowing the images to speak for themselves, unsupported, and the need to contextualise them. He is aware that on their own his photographs are very ambiguous but he is cautious about applying too much explanatory text, feeling this would transform the work into documentary or photojournalism.
It may be held that a photograph needs to fit into a particular genre, to be categorised or labelled in a taxonomy of photography. My view is that irrespective of the author’s intention, a photograph can have aspects of several aesthetics, which may indeed blur the genre boundaries.
Does the label change the meaning?
I think it does, but the extent to which it achieves this will depend on the text and the image. There needs to be a credible, if tenuous, link between the two, otherwise the overall tenor of the work lurches off into surrealism. Certainly the viewer can be directed along a certain cognitive path when presented with a particular image/text combination. Changing the text whilst keeping the image the same will suggest a different train of thought. I think the effect is better referred to a changing the perception… the word ‘meaning’ tends to suggest an invariable interpretation.
In her series Public Order Pickering photographed areas used for police training in which fake houses and street furniture had been assembled. At first glance the photographs appear to be of a normal street scene, then we notice that the traffic lights are out, a large board where the street name should be simply shows a cryptic “0” and the area is completely unpopulated.
Pickering’s photographs use deep depth of field; every element is in sharp focus, the better to sustain the viewer’s close scrutiny. She is inviting us to take a really close look and see what we can see. It feels like a challenge – ‘look, I’m not hiding anything, it’s all really clear and straightforward’…. but we realise that it’s anything but. The vertical plane is undistorted – there are no converging verticals – and I don’t know if this is intentional or how it occurred, but it does underline the apparent lack of artifice in the image. This is an interesting contrast since the content of the images is entirely artificial.
I don’t think Public Order was ever intended to be documentary work so whether it is successful or misleading is neither here nor there. In forming this view I note that Pickering describes herself as an artist thus:
“Sarah Pickering is a London based, British artist interested in fakes, tests, hierarchy, sci-fi, explosions, photography and gunfire. ”
(2017). Sarah Pickering. Retrieved June 28, 2017, from Times Online Web site: http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/T-Bio.html
That’s not to say that the work could be put to documentary use at some time. Perhaps they would be helpful to a police officer in an action for unfair dismissal; perhaps one of the walls will collapse and injure someone prompting a liability claim and the photographs could be re-purposed as evidence. However Pickering’s declared aim is to produce artwork rather than documentary and without addressing the difficulty of intentionalism this influences the way the work is produced. She adopts a documentary style, which is deliberately misleading, in order to produce photography as art.