Is Documentary Photography Exploitative?

28th April 2020 Essays, University Comments (0) 130

The following essay I completed as part of my MA unit ‘Writing Criticism: Critical and Analytical Frameworks‘. This was a critical writing essay on a topic of our own choice, and our first major essay of the MA. I chose to write about documentary photography and got 83/100 which I was pretty pleased with. Naturally, since this was written I have read and researched a lot more, and have found there are a lot of things that I would do differently, as well as choose different case studies. This is pretty much as it was handed in, except for the formatting.

Is Documentary Photography Exploitative?

This work will discuss how documentary photography explores social issues through their aesthetic display and critical reception, and if this reception can cause notions of exploitation in the subjects photographed for the images to have a critical impact. To do this I will refer to underlying theories from photography critics such as Martha Rosler, Susan Sontag, Abigail Solomon-Godeau and Hal Foster, and how they discuss the critical reception of documentary photography and the underlying theories.

I will look at images from two case studies: Martin Parr’s Last Resort (1983-85) and Diane Arbus’ Untitled (1970) and discuss them through semiotic analysis based on the theories of Roland Barthes, and how this relates to the aesthetics of the photograph. As a practising documentary photographer, I will use my positionality and experience to see how my own views align or oppose contemporary critical reviews on the reception of the case studies. I will use the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus and how this relates to both the photographer and in the viewer.

I will see if there is a link with the critical reception of the images with their aesthetics, taking into consideration cultural memory, and situate the case studies socially, historically and geographically. Also, I will critique the idea of the ‘artist as ethnographer’ and how important it is for the artist/photographer to record different cultures and identities. Further to this, I will look at the way they go about this, either as a detached observer based on the ideas of Baudelaire’s Flâneur, or if photographing from either inside or outside the culture, does what they are documenting have a greater impact without any notions of exploitation.

Finally, I’ll discuss issues that arise from documentary photography. If the photographer has a moral duty to be sympathetic in what they’ve chosen to photograph, should this be weighed against the critical and aesthetic considerations. I will also look at any solutions that photographers could use to approach subjects without causing offense.

Aesthetics of Documentary Photography

‘The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed’ (Sontag 1977).

Critic and essayist Susan Sontag’s idea that the camera can free the photographer from responsibility is both acutely observant but also morally questionable. On one hand, photographers do have a duty to record everyday events, to bring light to those in the shadows of society and to make aware those that are marginalised or otherwise ‘outside’ mainstream society. On the other, it questions the photographer’s responsibility in how they go about this. I feel it’s important to ensure the subjects that are photographed are not exploited under the auspices of showing their plight in a way that could hinder, rather than help, calls into question the usefulness of documentary photography. As Martha Rosler writes: ‘Documentary, as we know it, carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful’ (Rosler 1981). It is this problem where exploitation can arise, in the balance of power between the photographer and subject, and also in the role the viewer plays. If the photographer is producing work for a specific audience, who is this audience and are they able to receive and understand the work based on the aesthetics of the image?

It could be argued that powerful images can get across a specific point of view or narrative, but this is often to the detriment of the subject in the image in a way that is hidden behind an aesthetic beauty. As Walter Benjamin stated: ‘[Photography] has succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment’ (Benjamin 1970). This is one of the problems with photography in a capitalist society. As photography has a worth which is linked to the aesthetic value of the image, not the social value of the subject or what the photograph represents. Sontag used an example of Lewis Hines’ photographs of children working in American cotton mills at the turn of the century (figure 1). These photographs did bring about a change prohibiting child labour, but over 100 years later, to a contemporary audience the ‘lovely composition and elegant perspective […] outlast the relevance of their subject matter’ (Sontag 1979). Just because the original issues that were bought up by the photograph were dealt with, does this mean all that is left for the photograph is one of aesthetic beauty. It has become ‘art’ and sold as such or should there still be some humility reserved for a historic document, and the ability to reframe it in a contemporary context?

Figure 1. (Hine 1908)

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the mainstay of documentary photography such as Lewis Hine’s was to show the middle classes how the working classes – or ‘other’ social groups seen as ‘inferior’ – lived and worked in an effort for social reform. These moral questions gave documentary photography the power to cause distress to those who saw the images, which in turn may induce sympathy with the subject. The more powerful the image, the more people would be shocked and resulting in action being taken. However, the nature of a photograph removes the viewer from experiencing what they are seeing, presenting a sanitized version of reality, particularly in the case of Hind’s images, ones that are beautifully lit and composed. ‘Photographs can and do distress. But the aestheticizing tendency of photography is such that the medium which conveys distress ends by neutralizing it’ (Sontag 1979). This presents a conflict for documentary photographers. To create work that can sensitively tackle a subject without showing them in a way that doesn’t exploit them, or one that doesn’t aestheticise in order to get across the artists’ intent.

An important part of the reception of a photograph comes from the viewer. How they interpret the photograph shows how successful the photographer was in getting across their intention for photographing that subject. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu popularised the term ‘habitus’ which relates to how different sections of society receive and understand images, based on upbringing, class, social status and education. This is to say certain groups of people may receive and understand photographs differently from others and find them exploitative based on their own life experiences, and looking at the aesthetics, confirms or opposes their critical reception of the image. As John Berger wrote, ‘Every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality’ (Berger 2013). When a person looks at a photograph, they are more inclined to find the photograph aesthetically pleasing and therefore critically agreeable if the photograph conforms to their own view of reality or their habitus.

Case studies

Diane Arbus was an American photographer working in New York in the 1960’s. She became famous for her hard-line approach to documentary photography and purposefully set out to photograph social groups that were not often photographed or documented, such as nudists, circus performers, dwarfs, LGBT+ communities and strippers. Those who, in 1960s New York, were considered outcasts of society. This did and still does produce a mix of criticisms when responding to her work. As critic Gerry Badger writes, ‘The very potency of her images, their dangerous, disturbing allure, demands an almost instantaneous moral judgment on the part of the viewer’ (Badger 1988). This sums up Arbus’s work. It draws people to study them, even if it’s uncomfortable, who then produce a judgment based on their habitus. If their tastes and values align with how they receive and understand the images, they would find them more acceptable. Many people in 1960’s New York would have a habitus that would mean their daily social interactions would not bring them into contact with the people Arbus routinely photographed and may not have understood her intent, finding her images shocking. As society has become more accepting of people on the fringes of society, her images are now viewed in a more inclusive social context, but one that people find historically exploited the subjects.

As a photographer myself, I find some of Arbus’s work disturbing as they are far removed from what I would be happy photographing. At the same time, I can understand the rationale behind some of her photographs, to me they come across as very truthful and observant. It is important to study her images and understand why Arbus has taken them, or at least be able to make an informed decision. As Arbus said in the Aperture Monographs:

‘Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that’s what people observe. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw’ (Arbus 1972).

Arbus’s style of photographing people was to catch them with their guard down, to photograph them as naturalistically as possible. Viewers of these pictures may consider these unpleasant images. I believe this type of negative criticism to her work stems from an empathy from people taking offence to how they would feel in a similar situation. This reminds me of a contemporary photographer who has also received a lot of criticism for the way he’s treated his subject matter, Bruce Gilden. He, like Arbus, documents everyday people on the street in uncompromising and often unflattering garish, portraits (figure 2). People don’t find these images aesthetically pleasing, and from this have built up a negative criticism, calling them exploitative and de-humanising. As critic Sean O’Hagen commented: ‘His style seems to work against any intention to humanise his subjects. […] their perceived ugliness is paraded as a kind of latter-day freak show’ (O’Hagen 2015). I have to agree with O’Hagen, and find the images quite disturbing and not sympathetic to the subjects. Both Gilden and Arbus’s pictures strike a dissidence with people in how photography should flatter, producing negative criticism from the overall aesthetics and treatment of the subjects in the photograph.

Figure 2. (Gilden 2013) © Bruce Gilden

From 1969, Arbus visited residences in New Jersey for the developmentally and intellectually disabled. It was here she worked on what was to become her last project, Untitled. The images in Untitled show a departure from Arbus’s usual style of photography where she was often upfront and occasionally aggressive in her treatment of her subjects, to one where she has taken a step back to observe what is happening, producing a softer image.

Because of the change in how Arbus approached the aesthetics of the images in the Untitled series, it produced very haunting and mysterious images that distanced her from the subject. Arbus’s pictures were very different to similar works produced by photographers such as Richard Avedon, who photographed inside the East Louisiana Mental Hospital in 1963 (figure 3). These images are very hard-hitting and do strike an empathy with the subjects who are clearly in an institution. One also has to wonder why these photographs were taken, and for what purpose it serves the people in them. It is interesting that there isn’t there more criticism against Avedon for his images compared to Arbus’s images that appear much more sympathetic towards her subject.

Figure 3. (Avedon 1963) © Richard Avedon Foundation


Figure 4. (Arbus 1970) © Diane Arbus Estate

Arbus’s images were taken outdoors, free from any institutional setting and were of unrestrained patients shown happy and playing, just being themselves. In her approach and treatment of her subjects at the institution, I think Arbus treats them compassionately and honestly.

Looking at figure 4, we see a black and white photograph of three girls playing outside on the grass in what could be a park or large garden. The background is uncluttered, with a row of trees and a parked car in the distance. One girl appears to be about to do a forward roll, watched by a girl in a swimsuit on the left. On the right, is another girl in a dress, with her head back in laughter. Next to her on the grass is a box with a ribbon, which could signify that this is someone’s birthday. This doesn’t look like a picture taken in a hospital for a marginalized group of people, and that’s where I believe Arbus’s skill as a humanist photographer shows though, allowing her subjects to act normally. O’Hagan writes she is only a humanist ‘if your view of humanity is essentially pessimistic and tinged with neurotic narcissism.’ (O’Hagan 2011). I do not agree with O’Hagen, as I think Arbus has normalised them into being three girls playing, no different to any other three girls playing outside.

‘Arbus was used to guiding her subjects, […] But now, with the “Untitled” pictures, she faced people who would not respond to direction. They just were — and she watched them be’ (Lubow 2018).

The issue people took with the Untitled images wasn’t because Arbus was a middle-class outsider, or that she wasn’t sympathetic to her subjects, but that the subjects did not have the mental ability to refuse or decline their pictures being taken. By photographing them in order to normalise them in society, Arbus unintentionally ends up ‘othering’ them by singling them out as different, making them appear more marginalised. Sontag said Aubus’s images were ‘based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other’ (Sontag 1979). As art critic Hal Foster writes, othering the subject ‘confirms rather than closing the gap between the two through a reductive, idealistic or otherwise misbegotten representation’ (Foster 1996). It is a complicated interplay of subject and photographer, who can produce work that can represent a specific community, but by doing so doesn’t go too far in highlighting the differences. The most ideal way to do this is to photograph from the inside – to understand and know the subjects in order to break down stereotypes and show sympathy. However, this is not always easy to do with some subjects, especially those within an institution as Arbus was photographing, so the photographer would always be ‘outside’.

Figure 5. (Arbus 1970) © Diane Arbus Estate

Photographing from the ‘outside’, as Abigail Soloman-Godeau comments: ‘As with Arbus’s photographs of freaks and deviants, the risk is that the subject – irrespective of the photographer’s intent – becomes object and spectacle’ (Soloman-Godeau 1994). Arbus was from a middle-class Manhattan family, so for her to focus on the outcasts of society does initially suggest an undercurrent of exploitation in photographing these people. This can make the images more difficult to view, in much the same way as do Avedon’s images of patients in institutions. Alice Correia argues that artists should be ‘maintaining a distinction between themselves and their subject matter’ (Correia 2006) although this distinction possibly only goes to reinforce the differences and the distance between social hierarchies.

This distance isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the middle-class Lewis Hine managed successfully to highlight child labour and bring reform while also being sympathetic to his subjects. In 1960’s America, conditions like Down Syndrome, which the three girls in figure 4 appear to have, was considered a mental illness and people with these conditions were often institutionalised. It may be the treatment of these people that contemporary viewers now find offensive, and a similar criticism would be levelled at any photographer in the same position.

Figure 5 shows two girls, standing arm in arm, happy and smiling and well-dressed. Both are wearing large bonnets which don’t seem to match their outfits. One of the girls has a handbag and her stockings rolled down below her knees. They both have Downs Syndrome, but I feel that looking at the photograph there is an air of discomfort and I question why the photograph was taken. In the early 1970’s I can understand why people found this photograph exploitative given the subject matter. The photograph is obviously posed, even if marginally in order to get them to face the camera. Their eye level is above ours as viewer, which does suggest there is some thought into how Arbus went about photographing and representing them.

Arbus’s photographic aesthetic came from her use of a Rolliflex camera, producing square format images with black and white film – the standard for documentarians such as Arbus in the 1960’s. The Rolliflex allowed her to photograph from a lower level than eye-level cameras. This has the effect of lowering our position of viewer to the subject. Raising it to eye level would imply a dominant viewer, lowering it to show a dominant subject. Nearly all her subjects, from middle-class New Yorkers, to the people in Untitled have been photographed in the same way. As Frederick Gross explains:

‘By photographing both ‘freaks’ and ‘normals’ in the same format, Arbus sought to eliminate the invisible boundary between traditional representations of the white, middle-class Protestant and the ‘other,’ and to depict the fragmentation of identity,’ (Gross in Palumbo 2018).

This way of photographing everyone equally I believe reinforces Arbus’s view in trying to show people as they are. Susan Sontag, writing eight years after Arbus’s death, was very scathing in her commentary of Arbus’s work and may be the prime mover in the universal negative critique of it in the following years. ‘In photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty and beauty, you get dwarfs’ (Sontag 1979). This criticism was aimed at Arbus’s intention of photographing marginalised groups, and I feel that this is more a sweeping statement against the aesthetics of Arbus’s work, rather than a rounded critique looking deeper into the motives behind her work.

Revisiting her work forty years later, in a more open, inclusive, contemporary society, I feel the images can be seen in a more balanced way. Sontag may not have understood the ideas behind the images. Arbus’s daughter kept a lot of her work under wraps until the mid-90’s, which if seen earlier may have informed people differently as to her intentions, rather than them creating an opinion based on half the evidence. Arbus was an outsider, but to my view, one that photographed empathetically, making sure that the subjects in Untitled were treated with respect.

Like Diane Arbus, British photographer Martin Parr has also been criticized for the subjects he’s photographed, notably a series of images of New Brighton. New Brighton is a holiday resort near Liverpool that he took as part of his work The Last Resort (1985), his first major project shot in colour. Parr, like Arbus, is from a middle-class background and had chosen to document the working classes who took their holidays at New Brighton. The main criticism levelled at his work when it was first displayed in the 1980’s was that his subject – the British working class – were being exploited under the banner of photographic art. Critic David Lee wrote at the time they were first exhibited:

‘[Parr] has habitually discovered visitors at their worst, […] Our historic working class, normally dealt with generously by documentary photographers, becomes a sitting duck for a more sophisticated audience. They appear fat, simple, styleless, tediously conformist and unable to assert any individual identity.’ (Lee in Badger, 2010).

Lee’s criticism is that Parr, as a middle-class photographer, should be more sympathetic to the working classes and the pictures he produced are for a middle-class audience to poke fun at, in a way exploiting the working-class way of life. Parr’s work has always had an air of humour within it, looking at the idiosyncrasies of British life. However, it was the aesthetics of the photographs showing the conditions that were acceptable for a seaside holiday for certain members of society that people took offence too. Lee’s criticism plays down the values of Parr’s work, saying that a sophisticated audience would find the images essentially boring, painting everyone with the same brush, unable to show any individualism. I disagree with Lee’s criticism, and do see individualism in the people shown, feeling they have been treated sympathetically. I am viewing the images over 30 years later as a photographer with a different habitus to Lee, and I live near traditional seaside resorts so have had first-hand experience in them not looking how people imagine they should.

Figure 6. (Parr 1985 a) © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Figure 6 shows a young family eating fish and chips next to an overflowing waste-bin with discarded fish and chips scattered around on the floor. The couple seem oblivious to Parr’s presence, but what many people would have found shocking, even today, was their surroundings. This is not a traditionally aesthetically pleasing photograph of a seaside holiday. The way Parr has composed and shot this image puts the rubbish as the focus of the picture, lit by Parr’s signature flash producing an overly saturated, hyper-real image. The young family are secondary to the rubbish, but the semiotics of the image could read that New Brighton is a trashy destination that people wouldn’t be proud to be seen in. A white 1930’s building with the word ‘Palace’ on the front hints at a former grandeur. The white bag slung around the pushchair that is standing on the discarded white chip wrappers and polystyrene trays, mirrors the white rubbish bags overflowing in the bin. There isn’t much to separate the rubbish from the couple’s own belongings.

People would not usually want to sit surrounded by rubbish, but as Olivia Singer wrote; ‘It was the truth of their lives that seemed to shock the capital’s art scene, more accustomed to the established divisions that eighties Conservatism bred’ (Singer 2015). On the face of it, people disliked Parr’s photographs and called them exploitative because what they saw did not conform to their own expectations of how the working classes holidayed. People in Britain have a cultural memory for visiting the seaside, which usually aligns to a specific stereotype of sandy beaches and ice cream. Parr’s photos of New Brighton shatter these stereotypes, showing not an ideal holiday, but the harsh reality of what a seaside holiday could be. As Robert Morris remarked; ‘This is a clammy, claustrophobic nightmare world where people lie knee-deep in chip papers, swim in polluted black pools, and stare at a bleak horizon of urban dereliction’ (Morris in Singer 2015) (figure 7). This may have looked like a nightmare, but to many people this was their reality. It was the prejudice of Morris in 1986 who, like many other critics was unaware or unable to accept that this was normal to many working-class people.

Figure 7 (Parr 1985 b) © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Parr just took pictures of what he saw, in much the same way that Diane Arbus did. They were not staged, just observed. Re-viewing the images in a contemporary context, where the social classes have softened and the harshness of 1980’s Thatcherism has faded, Parr’s photos can be seen in a new light as an important body of work that didn’t try to be overly critical of the working classes, just truthful. As Elisabeth Mahoney wrote over twenty years later from Parr’s first exhibits, ‘now they look humorously engaged and fond, bringing British working-class nook and crannies into view, and reminding us how unusual that was (and is) in art photography’ (Mahoney 2008). Parr’s work ended up becoming an important project that was uncompromising in its subject matter. This shocked many when they first saw it as it did not sit within their habitus, as their tastes and values didn’t align with the ideals of the project so finding it offensive and exploitive. I do not see Parr’s work as exploitative to the people in them in the same way that Hine’s images of working children were not exploitative. They do what documentary photography should do, and that is to highlight all aspects of society in a truthful, sympathetic way.

The ‘Artist as Ethnographer’

Art critic Hal Foster formulated the term ‘Artist as Ethnographer’ to situate the artist within an updated social and political model based on Walter Benjamin’s 1970 essay Author as Producer. Foster’s argument is that since the 1960’s there has been a shift from ‘a subject defined in terms of economic relation to one defined in terms of cultural identity’ (Foster 1996). This is what Foster calls an ‘ethnographic turn’, placing art within the field of culture with the viewer of art becoming a social subject in themselves. This raised another problem with the artist becoming an ‘ideological patron’. The idea of the artist as an ideological patron is where a split in identity between the artist and the ‘other’ occurs, and the artist confirms the ‘other’ as different in attempting to show a specific reality, ‘The cultural and/or ethnic other in whose name the artist often struggles’ (ibid). To paraphrase Foster, to avoid becoming an ideological patron, the artist should be aware of not only the discursive breadth of a subject, but also its historical depth, to understand the subject and document it objectively and compassionately (ibid). The artist should also be reflexive to avoid over-identification, which can also release them from being an ideological patron, or culturally arrogant. I agree with Fosters’ interpretation of the artist as ethnographer, however Foster doesn’t offer a concrete conclusion as neither the cultural politics on the left or right offer a complete solution, only that artists should occupy a middle ground, maintaining a critical distance from their subjects. Enough to allow them to observe and record impartially, but not too distant to reinforce stereotypes or become an ideological patron.

It is this critical distance that I think both Parr and Arbus hold well. To my mind, neither of them appear to have an agenda in the treatment of the two case studies, and both did well not to stage their pictures in order to play to stereotypes. One must be mindful that Arbus did move some people into position in a few of her pictures where there are informal group shots (figure 5), but I don’t think this harms the project. Where Parr and Arbus draw much of their criticism is from their elevated position as outsiders to the subject they are documenting. Critic Abigail Soloman-Godeau wrote:

‘We frequently assume authenticity and truth to be located on the inside (the truth of the subject), and, at the same time, we routinely – culturally – locate and define objectivity (as in reportorial, journalistic, or juridical objectivity) in conditions of exteriority, of nonimplication’ (Soloman-Godeau 1994).

Soloman-Godeau’s idea runs in parallel to Foster’s idea, that there is a balance to be sought to avoid being too much on the inside to over-politicise the subject, but also being not so outside to reinforce the idea of ideological patron, or to exploit the subjects. One has to wonder, if Parr was a working-class photographer from Liverpool, would he have produced the same photographs, and would they have been received in a different way? I think perhaps not. The criticism of Parr’s work was not just that he was a middle-class outsider, but also that the aesthetics of images he took were so remarkably different to anything that had gone before in British documentary photography.

Figure 8 (Parr 1975-79) © Martin Parr

The working classes are a subject that Parr had photographed before, notably ‘The Non-Conformists’ that he photographed in Hebden Bridge between 1975 and 1979 (figure 8). These are black and white photos of Northern working-class life with Parr’s acute eye for detail and humour apparent in them. Following in the vein of Chris Killip and Tony Ray Jones, both documentarians of the working classes in the 1960s and 1970’s, Parr’s work doesn’t seem out of place. The Last Resort was shot in colour with flash, resulting in very harsh, saturated almost hyper-real colour, marking a departure from ‘traditional’ documentary photography in the UK. As Olivia Singer comments,

‘this true aesthetic of observation, […] shocked those familiar with a more glitzy, consumerist understanding of holidays; the chip-shop wrappers and cigarettes dangling from mouths at the rundown resorts seemingly at odds with what a holiday ought be’ (Singer 2015).

It appears that it was the shock of this new aesthetic, seeing in bright, garish colour, as well as having a pre-conceived idea of what a seaside holiday should look, were the contributing factors to the negative criticism. As theorist Jonathan Friday writes:

‘To grasp the meaning of a documentary photograph […] requires understanding the intended connection between the images and actual events and states of affairs. In other words, to attend to a documentary photograph is to understand what is seen […] as an evidential illustration necessarily connected to a particular time, place and historical context’ (Friday 2002).

This misunderstanding as to the context of the photographs is evident and highlights the differences in cultures and habitus between those who viewed the work in Liverpool and London. As Parr himself explained:

‘At the time, when I first showed it in Liverpool, no one batted an eyelid because everyone knew what New Brighton was like. And then when I showed them in London [at The Serpentine Gallery], there was all kinds of responses; people were somewhat shocked’ (Parr in Singer 2015).

Parr could be seen as Hal Foster’s model of ‘artist as ethnographer’. He was documenting a specific culture of people in bright colour, highlighting an economic and social difference between people in the UK and how they holidayed. There is an uncomfortable realism about the photos, but this I think works in their favour. As Martha Rosler states; ‘the force of documentary surely derives in part from the fact that the images might be more decisively unsettling than the arguments enveloping them’ (Rosler 1981). Parr’s images were certainly aesthetically unsettling, and this may have played into their critical reception based on people’s habitus. But any arguments against them would have been moot once people understood that this was a reality. While they may not have had the social reform of Hine’s images, they are now an important and valuable social document of 1980’s British life.

The way Parr and Arbus went about their work was primarily as observer. Though their wanderings they saw life as it was and documented it. Through this way of observing, I’m reminded of Baudelaire’s identification of the Flâneur, a 19th Century idea to describe a middle-class ‘figure of privilege and leisure, with the time and money to amble around the city at will’ (Elkin, 2016). Susan Sontag discussed the Flâneur in relation to photography saying:

‘Photography first comes into its own as an extension of the eye of the middle-class flâneur […] The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitring, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes’ (Sontag 1979).

While Sontag’s Flâneur seeks out more voyeuristic tendencies, writer Ian Sinclair brings the concept of the Flâneur more up to date: ‘the born again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces than noticing everything’ (Sinclair in Seale 2005). While Baudelaire’s Flâneur was more interested in subjectivity over mechanical objectivity, photography is now accepted as something that emulates the real rather than copying it. As Kirsten Seal writes: ‘Easily reproduced and hence materially disposable, photographs are at once visual and physical dramatisations of the transience of everyday life’ (Seal 2005). Given this view of photography is more in line with Baudelaire’s initial description of the Flâneur’s ephemerality towards the social sights they observed, I feel that to describe documentary photographers who are interested in observing the everyday social world as a Flâneur is an appropriate term. I would strongly suggest that Martin Parr and to an extent Diane Arbus could be described as a Flâneur.

Documentary photography by its nature as an artistic outlet of observing and documenting the everyday will always have problems. The issue of the situation of the photographer in relation to the subject will always be the main point of contention, but criticism comes from the viewer, those who the work is meant for, and those who are supposed to receive and understand the photographer’s intent. Critic and theorist John Berger wrote ‘All photographs are ambiguous. All photographs have been taken out of a continuity’ (Berger 2013). What the photographer experiences when they take a picture can never be replicated or understood wholly by the viewer, only what the photographer intends them to see. With his photographs of New Brighton, we’ll never fully know if Parr chose the images he did for their impact or if they were chosen purely as interesting social spectacles. As Guy Debord states ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images’ (Debord 1983). In this case, Parr could be seen as mediating thorough his images his own view on how a social class experience their holiday. This itself is subject to Parr’s own habitus and how he sees himself as someone who should record this spectacle.

The reception of the images is also subject to the habitus of the people viewing the work and if they find them aesthetically pleasing. I feel that aesthetically his images are very hard hitting. Parr was photographing a gritty reality that not many people saw, but doing so in a way to make people have a greater social understanding, and not to exploit them though notions of the ‘other’. ‘Any photographer, no matter how much of a social critic – unless photographing something as desperate as war or utter social deprivation – must have affection for his or her theme, and it should show’ (Badger 2010). I believe that in Parr’s and Arbus’s work, this affection for their subject does show though. They produced aesthetically striking work, that at the time both projects were unveiled, caused initial shock and criticism. Now, through a greater understanding and natural social development, both projects have become defining works in photographic history. Like with Lewis Hine’s work, there is now a danger that the works move from being documents of social history into the aesthetic art world, with the motives and criticisms being reduced to footnotes, and the images being seen purely as capital.


Martha Rosler commented that ‘Documentary photography has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery’ (Rosler 1981), as it often shows socially disadvantaged groups of people in order to appeal to the self-interest of the more privileged. Quite often, it is the photographers who are also classed as the privileged, which leads into the morally questionable motives behind why they are seeking out these groups and to what end photographing these groups will help them.

Photographing these social groups from the ‘outside’, may unintentionally ‘other’ and disidentify with the subject, exploiting them to ‘build up political solidarity through fantasmic fear and loathing’ (Foster 1996). Photographing from the ‘inside’ has its own problems by overidentifying with the subject. Both ways are dealing with the problem of representing the ‘other’, ‘where the analysis depends on notions of voyeurism and objectification, tourism and imperialism’ (Solomon-Godeau 1994). One way documentary photographers could represent a subject in order not to ‘other’ them is by displacing them, focusing on aspects of representation. Parr could have taken a theoretical approach, for example just showing images of the conditions with the detritus and rubbish left by the people on holiday rather than people surrounded by rubbish. This could have its own set of problems such as misrepresentation, or not fully dealing with the subject.

This may have produced an aesthetically different body of work, one that may not have had the shock value of the original but would have dispelled any notion of exploiting the working classes. A different approach may not have worked with Diane Arbus’s Untitled as it was specifically the people that were the subject. I maintain that by setting out to document a specific group of people, ones that in a contemporary society wouldn’t be hidden away in an institution, Arbus did photograph them sympathetically, especially when compared to Avedon’s similar body of work. As Avedon’s images were taken very close-up to the patients, they appear very intrusive and much harder to look at. Unlike Avedon, Arbus manages to stay the right critical distance to not patronise or objectify the subject, to just let them be themselves. As Jerry Badger writes:

‘All photography is potentially exploitative […]. The potential for misanthropy invariably thrives whenever one human being has power and control over another. The reality of photographic exploitation might be eradicated only in theory, in the practicable implausibility of subject’s and photographer’s aims coinciding exactly’ (Badger 1988).

Whether people find specific photos exploitative or not often falls back to their habitus, their own taste and values and cultural memory. As photographs such as those by Arbus and Parr become turning points in social and photographic history, like with Lewis Hine’s images, they will be appreciated more for their aesthetics over their subject. Photographers do have a moral duty to be sympathetic, but this should come across in the treatment of their subjects before any aesthetic considerations, and it should be this treatment that critics judge, not purely the aesthetics.

Image References

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