The word ‘documentary’ can be explained as ‘providing a factual record or report’. But facts and reports are two different things. Is documentary photography a representation of reality?
Is a photograph a reflection of the reality? A view superseded? After all, isn’t everyone aware that our experience of the world depends to a great extent on both our prior knowledge and our imagination? We rarely doubt the validity of what we perceive. But if you close your eyes, how can you tell that the world is still there? And if you only see the front of something, how can you be sure that it also has a back? In other words, reality as we experience it is purely personal, and not something necessarily universal.
In the past, photography functioned as the ‘collective memory’. It was used to register and document people’s lives in a faithful and objective manner. Later we became increasingly aware that everyone experiences reality in his or her own way. The point of discussion with regard to documentary photography is whether we are able to remain aware of this distinction. Are photographers at all capable of avoiding that their momentary experience is regarded as the only reality? It is not so much the infinitely improving technology that causes concern about the truth of a photo, it is the realisation that every photo, by definition, is a manipulation of reality. Whether consciously or not, a photographer always makes cut-outs of reality. He exposes selected subjects and leaves others out, sets the depth of field, makes a choice for colour or black- and-white, and what the photographer considers ‘noise’ and consequently leaves out, may be crucial for my understanding of the picture. As a result, the photographer creates a reflection of his or her own reality.
Photography proves incapable of recording objective reality. Because whether the image is manipulated in the dark room or behind the computer, all this is no longer relevant once you realise that the image was a manipulation of reality anyhow, from the moment it came into being. But is that really so terrible? Maybe we should just accept that nobody is able to experience objective reality, let alone register it, without adding one’s own interpretation. Isn’t that exactly what makes photography so wonderful? Isn’t photography essentially about the interpretation of life, rather than about the objective registration of life?
Agree / disagree?
Today’s documentary photography has gone far beyond the pursuit of objective registration. Take a look at the documentary photography shown at the World Press Photo exhibitions, or at the portfolios in this issue, and you can see that this documentary photography, without distorting reality, does not pretend to be neutral or objective. Although the image is based on facts and reality, it does not convey an opinion. The aesthetics and personal interpretation invite observers to look at the image for a longer time, and then form their own opinion. Subsequently you may relive the moment yourself, agree or disagree with the photographer, and try to discover the reality yourself.