Exercise 2-4: Discussing Documentary 

Read the introduction and first section of the article ‘Discussing Documentary’ by Maartje van den Heuvel in Documentary Now! Write a short summary. 

Summary of key ideas: 

The increasing instances of documentary in an art context does not diminish the value of the work, rather, allows for new and interesting developments.

Documentary remix: rather than diminishing the authority of documentary, the move away from the view of photography as transparent and objective has allowed for increased acceptance of subjectivity and new outlets, for example in the field of art.

Visual literacy – the increased sophistication of both artist and viewer in being able to create and disseminate visual media.

The militant eye witness – a broad term that defines the documentary traditions of engaged photography.

The article is concerned with current thought and discussion about the advance of documentary photography/film in art. Heuvel posits the question – is documentary taking a new path and attempting to renew the way it functions in the space of the museum? The concern with this idea is that the legitimacy and effectiveness of documentary is diminished and that the degree of reality and the boundary with fiction is destroyed.

The appearance of documentary in a museum context should not be surprising but understood in terms of the increased influence of the media in the way western societies interpret reality. This is an indication of an increased ‘visual literacy’ on the part of both artists and viewers, our experience of the world is increasingly informed by the media: “it is where we inform, amaze and entertain ourselves, conduct trade, seduce and allow ourselves to be seduced.” Although the visual language used by the media is becoming more complex, viewers are also becoming more trained in navigating and disseminating this, hence ‘visual literacy’: “Visually literate people are able to critically distinguish the codes and mechanisms that the media uses in photography, film and video and to fathom their meaning.” Visual and verbal literacy sit side by side, both deal with the ability of readers to deal critically and knowledgeably with texts, however, visual literacy is developed intuitively: “visual literacy develops almost exclusively through looking at the mass media.” All types of media, including documentary, are “reflected upon in art[with] art beginning to function more and more as a mirror of visual culture.” 

Documentary: the militant eye witness 

In its broadest definition, documentary refers to every image made with a camera, however, there are two rough visual traditions – human interest and communist/socialist, the result of these traditions was that documentary came to refer to the function of certain images – the militant eye witness, a type of engaged documentary.

Human interest: 

The origin of this tradition is the early 20th century and photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine – they were motivated by compassion for the poor and their images reflected a reformist aspiration. Documentary was defined by John Grierson in 1926 as a way to describe things from actual life objectively and realistically. In the 1930s, the FSA project commissioned photographers to show the poverty that resulted from the great depression as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal politics. The tradition continued in the 1950s/60s with the many illustrated magazines published all over the western world and the rise to prominence of the Magnum photographers.


A tradition that developed in the early part of the twentieth century up until the second world war in Russia/Soviet Union and Germany. Photography was embraced as a new form of imagery suited to the times and positioned against the bourgeois medium of painting. The camera was actively used as a tool in revolutionary aims, typically focusing on man and the depiction of work and everyday life – the working class were shown either in harrowing poverty or as heroic revolutionary heroes: “The camera was intended to offer support to Socialists among themselves in this struggle to expose abuses.” Although the German movement was brought to an end by Hitler in 1933, activist use of photography continued in the Netherlands and played a leading role in post war documentary photography.

In the 1960s/70s, documentary photography was heavily linked to left wing activism with the customary narrative structure being that of reportage. Documentary photography at this time was opposed to advertising which was associated with colour, technical perfection, artificially, idealisation and staging. Documentary was black and white, associated with realism, authenticity and everyday rawness: “images ‘seized from life.'” 

Since the 1970s, the fundamental nature of documentary as being transparent and objective has been increasingly undermined, a change linked to the increase of mass media and the visual literacy. Rather than documentary losing its authoritative status, it can be argued that this awareness of the documentary images subjectivity opened new paths for it, most notably in the field of art.

Documentary remix: 

The museum is now an environment where the “documentary image is analysed, commented upon and deployed in new ways.” Although the degree with which artists place reflection on the tradition of documentary varies, a common theme is that they analyse and comment on the structure and effect of documentary in the mass media.

Examples of photographers exploring alternatives to traditional documentary photography in their practice and the approaches taken:


Technical, stylistic or narrative alternatives to classic documentary, sharpness, detail and colour proposed as alternatives to the typical documentary style. Immediately suited to the art market and museum presentation, stand as autonomous works of art and less connected to each other as a picture story –

The Becher/Düsseldorf school:

Thomas Struth

Andreas Gursky 

Thomas Ruff 


Not confined to the underprivileged and victims as subject. E.g. Middle class a common subject matter –

Martin Parr: The Cost of Living

Karen Knorr: Marks of Distinction

Subjects not previously associated with documentary depicted –

Larry Sultan: The Valley 


Personal experience: 

Attempt by the photographer not to construe a story about the ‘other’ and disregard the distance normally shown in documentary between subject and image maker, normally typified by a snapshot style associated with family photos emphasises the intimacy of the work –

Nan Goldin: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, I’ll be Your Mirror

Bertien van Manen: Mannen

Far reaching depth: 

A reaction against “routine like superficiality” in which many documentary makers assembled picture stories –

Allan Sekula: Fish Story

Fazal Sheikh: Ramadan Moon


Gilles Peress: The Silence


Publicity and distribution channels: 

Studies of the way the media shapes history and the political and commercial interested that influence this, stories that do not fit into the collective image of the world/regarded as undesirable/ignored by society/repressed –

Susan Meiselas: Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History


Walid Raad/Atlas Group: Lebanon work.

Historical images: 

View that the documentary photography always remains an outsider and stories can be better told using/reusing/quoting original, historical images –

Julian Germain: Steelworks 

Johan Grimonprez: Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y 


Andrea Stultiens: Kerkdorp – Polderdorp 


Questioning the documentary image: 

Displays a visual literacy and insight into how classical documentary functions –

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Jeff Wall: Dead Troops Talk

Juul Hondius: constructed images with the suggestion of documentary e.g. people sleeping in cars.


Restaging for the purposes of a photograph/film an event that has already been shown in documentary images –

Pierre Huyghe: The Third Memory

Christoph Draeger: Catastrophes, Black September


Heuvel, M. (2005) Mirror of visual culture: Discussing Documentary. 

In: Gierstberg, F, et al. (2005) Documentary Now! Contemporary Strategies in Photography, Film and the Visual Arts. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

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