The Paradox of Documentary: Witold Krassowski – ‘Three things on teaching and the taught’

From page 20 of the course notes:

“In an article in Eight Magazine in 2004 (V3N1), Witold Krassowski argued that a photograph, including the documentary photograph, is not an efficient method to document a process: it cannot explain, analyse or make a prognosis. So why is it that photography has always been such a powerful and effective tool for documenting events? Despite its limitations according to Krassowski, there is an action that the photograph “can perform brilliantly; it can influence human emotions.”



Victor Burgin quote: “Shoot first, ask questions later.”

I can identify with the analogy given by Burgin of students being unable to take photographs because of the burden of theory. I think this is not exclusive to theory but also includes increased knowledge of photography/photographers/artists and the realisation that it is impossible to produce anything truly original.

  • Photography is unique and translation into any other medium leads to loss of meaning. (although also questions where photography is/is still a medium at all.)
  • Ideas that photography has many weaknesses: presenting logical relationships between elements, documenting a process, analysis. Strength is influencing human emotions.
  • Notions of truth: photographs are accepted as true because they are photographs – feature reality.
  • Photography projects should start with reality, be approached instinctively before ending at a conscious image.
  • Critical of photography education which takes the opposite approach with students “torturing their brains” in order to arrive at a concept for photographic projects.
  • Over conceptualisation can lead to boring images without anything interesting/worthwhile to say.
  • Photography education is caught in the approach of theory first because of economic realities and the fact education is a business – to teach photography any other way would be both economically unviable and take too much time.
  • Photographers are faced by the practical issues of mushrooming photography schools, proliferation of photographers and ubiquitous image technology.
  • Honesty – the integrity of the photographer represented by honesty to themselves and to their audience is paramount. Outside influences such as career advancement and fear of advancing an unpopular idea can lead to not achieving this.
  • Generalises about students and emerging photographers approach lacking integrity, being obsessed with self promotion, showing a lack of self awareness/critique/knowledge of photographic history and producing mediocre images in order to advance careers – not sure about this…surely not all young photographers?
  • Disparaging about emphasis on composition, particularly using people as the main subjects. Describes humans as being used as the basis for graphic signs which on the surface I agree with. However, what is photography if not the arrangement of graphic signs? If people are the subject matter is this not the point?
  • Strongly against the work of Gilles Peress, citing ‘The Silence – Rwanda’ saying the series is an example of photography that attempts to be art by capitalising on the distress of others while showing very little of the people who are supposedly its topic. I am aware of the work of Peress and find it affecting, Krassowski’s criticism is certainly impassioned but I am unsure how convincing it is as only opinion is offered rather than an argument illustrated with examples. I need to research Peress more to be able to form my own opinion.
  • News photography does not display the “kind of abuse” that is represented by form over content and fuelled by the ambition and ego of the photographer. He argues that the news photographer is perhaps happy with attaining modest status which seems an over simplification that attempts to elevate them to the status of selfless martyr. The argument does not take into account the ideological intentions of newspapers, their owners and the fact this type of media is in decline. It could be argued that the art gallery is now a forum that can be used by photographers to show their work and present much more detailed and complex stories than can be shown in traditional news media.
  • Conclusion – initially I found the point of view expressed compelling, however, after closer thought I became frustrated by the too specific viewpoint and lack of concrete examples. It seems Krassowski has much experience and I would have liked this to be demonstrated and shared more in the article. Still, the ideas expressed are ones that I will bear in mind through further study and I will be interested to see whether this will lead to my viewpoint changing closer to that of the author.


Krassowski, W. (2004) Three things on teaching and the taught. Eight Magazine, Volume 3 Number 1, May 2004. Available at: [accessed 18th April 2014]

Further Research:

Witold Krassowski

Victor Burgin

Gilles Peress

^The Silence – Rwanda

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