Exercise 1-3: Time and context

Read the post ‘What Makes a Document’ on WeAreOCA, including all replies to it, and write your comment both in the blog page and in your own blog. Visit all the links on the blog post. 

Make sure your reply is both personal and authoritative. Express your opinion on the topic of the blog and substantiate your comments with solid arguments, ideally referring to other contributions in the blog. 

Notes on blog post and comments here: Notes-exercise 1-3

The consensus, from the comments on this blog post, is that any photograph is a document in the broad definition of the term, context is important to give an informed reading of an image and time can alter a picture’s meaning. Despite this, I wonder how the notion of document fits with ideas about documentary photography and how essential time and context are to this. Are they inextricably linked?

Although the term document carries connotations of reality and authority it is also an accepted truth that photographs are inherently ambiguous (as some point out this is also part of their appeal) and can contain multiple meanings. Reading through the article and comments I was consistently reminded of Barthes ‘Camera Lucida’ and his meditation on the winter garden photograph of his deceased mother – a picture that has great significance and emotional attachment for him as it somehow portrays his mother’s very essence and is a link back to her, but, which he admits, would have no connection to anyone else. The reason I mention this is that we can share with Barthes the context and backstory to this image but are unable to share with him his attachment because our experience is not his – this demonstrates how the readers personal, subjective view which is often based on intangible instinct is perhaps the most important aspect in applying understanding to a photograph.

In ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’ Jon Ronson demonstrates how the proliferation of photography through social media can evolve away from what the author intended in a dramatic way. On a trip to Arlington Cemetery, Lindsey Stone took a photograph next to a sign saying, “silence and respect” pretending to shout and with her middle finger pointing to the camera. The picture was intended as a joke to be shared with friends, when the image went viral however, Stone was sacked from her job, received death threats and abuse online and descended into a depression that meant she did not leave her home fro nearly a year. This is an extreme example of the judgements we make every time we absorb a photograph – I do not think time or context change the way an individual would react to this image as personal ideology is the important factor here. For me, I see a bad taste joke but nothing offensive. For someone who has lost a loved one in the armed forces a valid response would be outrage at the perceived desecration of the sacrifice that has been made. Although I cannot condone with the attacks on Stone I cannot condemn the revulsion of those who were offended by her photograph. In conclusion, it appears that despite acceptance in the possibility of multiple viewpoints for a photograph, many are unable, or perhaps unwilling to consider alternative viewpoints preferring to see

validation of their own beliefs and prejudices. Certainty is held as a prize above all else.

Barthes, R, (1993) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Classics.

Berger, J. and Mohr, J. (1982). Another way of telling. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Ronson, J. (2015) So you’ve been publicly shamed. United Kingdom: Pan MacMillan.


Inevitably, after 81 other responses, I found it difficult to add anything new to the question posed. Instead, I chose to respond in a personal way and tried to illustrate my point about authorial intent and the multiplicity of meaning inherent in photographs with a case that I felt was both relevant and a real-world example, that is a picture taken by a non-professional photographer in a real world setting. The reaction to this picture and how this relates to our rapidly evolving virtual lives was something I also wanted to touch on.

There are many interesting and thought-provoking contributions to this blog post. I found the chapter from Berger and Mohr’s ‘Another way of telling’, the interview with Susan Linfield and the direction to (re)watch Polliakoff’s ‘Shooting the past’ being the most valuable pointers for me. However, I could not help thinking that the intent of the exercise to push students into engaging in debate was not entirely successful. The comments are split between those who are responding directly to Jose’s post and others, like myself, who are commenting as students on the documentary course. (I also wondered how many students had chosen not to publish their responses on the blog and why.) The most interesting parts of the comments are those in which contributors engaged with each other – as I knew this was not going to happen with my post this undoubtedly affected the way I responded. I think debate was an aim for the exercise but the subject is simply not contentious enough to provoke opposing responses. Rather than being a substitute for a classroom debate I found myself focusing on how the lack of direct interaction is an unfortunate trade-off with the accessibility of distance learning. On a personal note, I also spent far too much time on this exercise, I am concerned that I am beginning to display traits that have hampered my progress in the past and need to make a concerted effort not to allow old behaviours to return.


Barthes, R, (1993) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Classics.

Berger, J. and Mohr, J. (1982). Another way of telling. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Navarro J. (2011) Context and Narrative. Available online at: https://weareoca.com/photography/context-and-narrative/ [accessed 8th May 2017]

Navarro, J. (2011) What makes a document? Available online at: https://weareoca.com/photography/what-makes-a-document/ [accessed 7th May 2017]

Ronson, J. (2015) So you’ve been publicly shamed. United Kingdom: Pan MacMillan.

Short, M. (2011) Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.

Links (mentioned in the blog post/comments): 

Review of ‘Context and Narrative’ by Maria Short. (Jose Navarro, WeAreOCA, 20th August 2011)


Charley Murrell: Constructed Childhoods


The Bedrooms: Emma O’Brien


Devil’s Garden: Eleanor Kelly


Wildlife Photographer of the year 2009: disqualified wolf image.

Jumping wolf loses wildlife prize


Nolan, H (2011) Stabbing, fleeing, heroism, incompetence, drama captured in one shot. Gawker


Article on difference between photojournalism and documentary photography by Anton Kratochvil and Michael Persson:


Suzanne Briet in ‘What is documentation’ (one of founding texts of information science) http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~roday/briet.htm

Berger and Mohr’s ‘Another way of telling’: chapter – the ambiguity of the image

Click to access berger-appearances_illus.pdf

Susie Linfield – author of Cruel Radiance talking about documentary:


When is a documentary? Documentary as a mode of reception by Dirk Eitzen

Click to access Eitzen.pdf

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