Exercise 3-11: Performative Documents

View the video on Hasan and Husain Essop at the V&A exhibition ‘Figures and Fictions’ and write a short reflective commentary.

Essop - Night before Eid

Hasan and Husain Essop are twin brothers who collaborate to create imaginary performative scenes concerned with Muslim identity and taboos in Islamic culture. A recurring theme for the Essop brothers is how the imagery in the media is used to seduce and particularly how this leads to conflict with the Muslim faith. They first work and agree on a concept together before setting the camera on a tripod at a particular location, taking turns to perform and be directed by the other brother. These images are then composited into a tableau scene.

In the video we are directed to watch, the idea that in Islam it is not permissible to put pictures of people on the wall is referenced as a peculiar influence on the brother’s development as artists and perhaps explains, at least partly, why they choose to use themselves as the characters in their pictures. It is difficult to assess their work properly as they do not have a website, however, I am struck by their drive to explore their Islamic identity and religion. Working from a personal perspective is an approach I admire, however, not sharing their world made it difficult for me to identity with the work. Some of their images are which are conflicts between east and west seem a little heavy handed, for example, ‘Thornton Road’ (2008). ‘The night before Eid’ (2009) is visually arresting but I am unsure what narrative is being shown – the depiction of food being prepared to be shared by the community during Ramadan seems at odds with the sinister and threatening representation of the image.

Read the article on Jeff Wall in Pluk magazine. Briefly reflect on the documentary value of Jeff Wall’s work.

Jeff Wall uses a technique described as ‘near-documentary’ to create his photographs, snapshots which are anything but, and often assembled from many momentary details. Wall is unconcerned with authenticity in the traditional photo-journalistic sense believing that this is often found in the images by the audience, although, he asserts that his photographs are based on personal experience and then recreated at a later time. The photographs themselves, often displayed as transparencies in large light boxes, are described paradoxically as ‘dramatically undramatic’. There is a tension between subject and presentation and Wall consciously draws further attention to the fabricated nature of the image as the transparencies are ‘sewn’ together to achieve their scale. The fact that it is possible to print one transparency at the large size Wall desires suggests a desire to both foreground and mask the artifice inherent in the work.

Throughout his career Wall has employed many different styles and influences which I will not look at in full here as the main question we are asked to consider is the documentary value of his work. His response to classic artworks, particularly the work of Manet, makes an interesting counterpoint to Tom Hunter’s work. Hyperreal tableau constructed images like ‘A sudden gust of wind (after Hokusai)’ (1993) and ‘Dead troops talk’ (1992) are famous examples of Wall’s work that have consolidated his position as one of the pioneers of conceptual photography. His most recent work however are much less dramatic, presented as prints rather than transparencies and resemble reportage rather than art photographs that are closer to early works like ‘Mimic’ (1982) Wall describes his work as ‘cinematographic’, by which he means they are re-creations of moments he has witnessed but did not photograph at the time, something that can be read as a comment on notions of the photograph as document. The process is further complicated by the fact Wall uses a crew of assistants and technicians to create his scenes in a way that is similar to the working methods of Gregory Crewdson, although the results are in the main much more rooted in the real world. Perhaps it is the fact that some of his images could be mistaken for actual reportage that means Wall faces criticism for this way of working, he rebukes this with his belief that his images are as close to those of Robert Frank or Paul Strand as they are to painting or cinema. This is a comparison I can agree with in that the only real difference is that Wall spends more time meticulously creating his vision while the more traditional way of working can perhaps be defined as bringing work together in the editing process – this does make these photographs any less subjective. Negative reactions towards Wall and questions about his intentions seem to suggest that notions about the nature of photographic truth, objectivity and realism are still very real concerns for many – if this was not the case then his work would not elicit such strong feelings. I would suggest that it is his unwillingness to explain how the images are made and what they mean that leads to this. For example, ‘Approach’ (2014) which shows what appears to be a homeless person standing next to a makeshift shelter is unsettling because of not only its realism but also by how recognisable an image it is – when I look at it I am reminded of both news and charity images and the knowledge that Wall’s image is a construction makes me question the validity of the other images I have seen – something that is difficult to stomach. The works of Jeff Wall possess as much documentary value as any other photograph in my view, perhaps more so in that he is up front about the artifice that is inherent in his working methods while the object of much ‘traditional’ documentary is to obfuscate this from the viewer. It could even be argued that the meticulous nature of the work is closer to any futile idea of ‘truth’ than the works that are supposedly based closer in reality.


Burnett, C. (2005) Jeff Wall. London: Tate Publishing.

O’Hagan (2015) Jeff Wall: ‘I’m haunted by the idea that my photography was all a big mistake.‘ The Guardian, 3rd November 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/03/jeff-wall-photography-marian-goodman-gallery-show [accessed 20th May 2018]

Victoria and Albert Museum: Figures and Facts: Hasan and Husain Essop. Available at: https://vimeo.com/22071316 [accessed 20th May 2018]

White, D. (N.D.) Jeff Wall: Hole in the wall. Photographs 1978-2004, Tate Modern, London. Pluk Magazine. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/plukjeffwall [accessed 20th May 2018]

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