© Mohamed Bourouissa

Pseudo-realities, pseudo-documentary, fictional documents, documentary fictions…I must admit I struggled to find a convincing title for this post. I’ve recently been noticing an increasing presence of this genre of photography in art galleries and photography festivals. Staged documentary photography has now a firm grip on contemporary documentary practice and a solid foothold in the art gallery environment.

Is it documentary photography though, I wonder? By documentary I mean a document, evidence of something that happened out there, something that occurred, for real, without being choreographed or prompted by the photographer. Clearly by this definition work such as that being produced by Hanna Starkey or Alma Haser (see her Paper project) wouldn’t count as documentary. Yet, their work conveys an immediacy of something real that engages the viewer exactly the same as ‘traditional’ documentary work. So perhaps what we need to think about is whether the conventional definition of documentary is too restricting for the inherently eclectic modern contemporary documentary practice.

This photographic genre is far from new; it’s been around for at least a couple of decades and was pioneered by Jeff Wall and his large scale staged shots.  Joan Fontcuberta’s ground-braking fictional documentary work is also representative of this genre and triggered much controversy. His books Sputnik: The Odysee of the Soyuz II and Fauna Secreta have a marked tongue-in-cheek approach and are a comical slap on the face of the myth of the photographic truth.

The degree of staged manipulation, if we can call it that, introduced by photographers operating within this genre varies from subtle rearrangements in the case of Tom Hunter to the heavily staged and scripted techniques sported by Mohammed Bourouissa. Bourouissa’s work challenges conventional perceptions of documentary by bringing real and imaginary experiences together and presenting them in such a visually compelling way that it is impossible to tell if what we are looking at is real or not.

And this is the point I would like to make, with particular reference to Bourouissa’s work. Does it really matter that his photographs do not depict naturally occurring scenes? And this leads to the next, and perhaps most important question, would our reaction to the image be any different had we not been told they are staged?

Perhaps the notion of the real in photography is more of a hindrance than help. At the end of the day every time we look at a photograph whatever is depicted in it is being re-enacted again within the neat boundaries of the photographic frame. Think of the Capa’s dying soldier photograph; the soldier actually dies every time we look at the photograph, over and over again. His death is re-enacted time after time. Hold on…I seem to remember that new evidence emerged not long ago about whether this photograph was actually staged too. Not even traditional reportage can elude the myth of the real.

For those of you with a flair for languages this is a very informative interview with Bourouissa (in French). During the interview Bourouissa makes his intentions perfectly clear, stating his aims and the rationale behind his choreographed approach. He says that he is not overtly concerned about where his images are ‘reportage’ or not. Bourouissa acknowledges that in reconstructing a scene he also reinterprets it. And this is the most intriguing of all the comments he makes on that interview; he admits that his photographs are re-presentative of situations he has seen and even experienced himself.

So, where does reality end and fiction begins then?

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35 comments for “Pseudo-realities

  1. 2 February 2011 at 1:27 pm

    An interesting post, Jose. I find it quite a challenging subject also. Here for what it’s worth here are my thoughts in response to the post and your particular questions.

    I don’t think this is documentary photography, in the way you define it above.

    Does it matter that the photographs do not depict a naturally occurring scene, and would our reactions be any different if we didn’t know they had been staged? The answers to both questions must be ‘yes’, surely. When I say it matters I don’t mean that the pictures are invalid for not being a naturally occurring event, but just that they are documenting something different.

    Leaving aside any debate about whether photography is ever ‘real’ or whether truth is ever possible, there is a distinction between photographing something that is happening anyway and making something happen to take a picture.

    This type of work strikes me as a cross between improvisation in acting, where people are given a setting and some broad story guidlines and then let their imagination take the work forrward and a docu-drama, restaging real events. Both of these are familiar in the theatre and film worlds. Depending on the level of control exerted by the photographers there may be more or less improvisation (or none at all).

    I think these works are interesting on a number of levels. In particular for me they raise the regularly-occurring question in photojournalism about how much the presence of a photographer affects protagonists in otherwise naturally-occurring events (the recent student demonstrations come forcefully to mind).

    They also make me want to know more about the process – who the protagonists were, what they thought about the work, what they think about it now it is public, why they agreed to take part. Is this discussed or documented in the work? I didn’t see any background material when the pictures were exhibited in Brighton (my oral French isn’t good enough to attempt the interview).

    • 2 February 2011 at 2:14 pm

      Good observations Eileen. Your comment about docu-dramas made me think…We are used to seeing docu-drama as film, but perhaps not in stills photography. Something that also occurred to me is that most docu-dramas are to do with past events rather than events purportedly occurring at the same time as the images are shown, as in Bourouissa’s case.

      As for the involvement of the actors in Bourouissa’s work, I didn’t pick up many specifics about it on the interview – my French is a bit rusty. But he said that he gives them a certain freedom to act and behave naturally while he concentrates on formal compositional issues. So I guess that the resulting images are not so much one single staged shot but a sequence of film-like frames. Then there must be an editing process and Bourouissa chooses that image which best reflects what he wanted to convey.

  2. 2 February 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Hmmm! is it documentary? At a very suprficial level the answer is clearly ‘no’ because these things were not happening ‘for real’ at the time the photo was taken. On the other hand – we all know that things such as the racial jibe in Wall’s ‘Mimic’ do happen, and so in that sense some are documentary, in that they document ‘real’ events, albeit in a remote way. It seems to me that if we don’t permit this remote definition of documentary (in the sense that the document is remote from the event) then we have no documentary evidence of anything that happened before the advent of photography, because until that point there was no instantaneous recording mechanism available.

    Ditto with the Bourouissa riot stagings because if we describe them as documentary it is almost implicit – presumably because of photography’s association with reality – that we are looking at photos taken as the event occurred. And yet – we know such events do occur, even if this one is staged.

    Perhapsa this is only an issue if a photographer actually seeks to mislead for some dishonourable motive – greed , hatred, etc.

    I wonder if the definition of documentary that you use is rather narrow and that is where the difficulty lies. We are used to documentary film makers recreating e.g. the life of a family of lions from footage gathered over many weeks or months, and this does not cause us an issue, so in society as a while there is a broader undersatnding of the word documentary. I suspect a hideous title like ‘real-time’ photography might be closer to your opening definition of documentary.

    There is of course a genre of photography that could quite easily encompass ‘documentary lite’ of the kind you discuss – stock photography. To me there seems little difference between assembling and photographing a ‘mock riot’ to communicate a message and assembling and photographing a ‘mock meeting’ or ‘mock family’ to allow someone else to communicate a message.

  3. CliveW
    2 February 2011 at 6:06 pm

    ‘There is of course a genre of photography that could quite easily encompass ‘documentary lite’ of the kind you discuss – stock photography. To me there seems little difference between assembling and photographing a ‘mock riot’ to communicate a message and assembling and photographing a ‘mock meeting’ or ‘mock family’ to allow someone else to communicate a message.’

    …and little difference between the real and the staged?

    That’s a very interesting point Nigel, especially as it seems to me that the news media have Find & Replace scripts for a lot of news events; the same clichéd phrases joining together changed names and places.

    Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker have often satirised the media, and the audience’s gullibility, for this propensity by making fake news.

    Perhaps Baudrillard’s thoughts on simulacra offer some insight here.

    • 2 February 2011 at 6:53 pm

      “…and little difference between the real and the staged?”

      I like to think of myself as one of those perfectly formed parents with shiny teeth and happy, smiley, blonde children :0)

      Obviously there’s a limit to the similarity, and stock does tend to cliche and stereotype, but the same could be said of both the artists Jose/I referenced. Cliche/stereotype exists for a reason – and a staged group of hoodied teenagers rioting or hanging around in rail stations seems to me just as much a cliched shortcut to a message as a smiley brunette in a phone headset, in spite of Bourouissa’s protestation that he ‘demounts the stereotypes’.

      Of course, this may not be Bourouissa’s intent (can’t see the interview so can’t put my French to the sword), but for me they provide no more insight into the lives of the disposessed than the brunette provides insight into working in a call centre. It is only our natural cynicism that leads us to believe the idealised riot scenes and disbelieve the idealised call centre.

      The risk is that once the viewer discovers it’s staged, and realises they’ve been duped, that documentary photography is damaged as an enterprise.

      Knowing me, knowing you. :0)

      • CliveW
        2 February 2011 at 8:00 pm

        Interesting that you should reference Steve Coogan, I found The Trip very engaging.

        That played very cleverly with truth, fiction, identity and the media; are they both really that insecure, or playing up, double bluffing, or really brave?

        Hardly what one thinks of as a sitcom though, it’s more ‘Nuts in May’ played out through real personas. In that way it has more in common with drama of the past than sitcom, and for me a more stimulating and intelligent watch than most contemporary TV drama.

    • 4 February 2011 at 12:23 pm

      Well, I was hoping someone would pick up on the pseudo-reality title and make a connection with Baudrillard. It had to be you Clive…:-)

      Yes, there is a connection with Baudrillard. Staged documentary photography avoids confronting the real event the same way as simulacra do. The original event is instead simulated, reinterpreted and, eventually, replaces the original one. Staged documentary, like simulacra, denotes fear of and a denial of the actual real event.

      But that doesn’t make Bourouissas work less worthwhile as a communication exercise, or does it?

      What do you reckon Clive?

      • CliveW
        4 February 2011 at 1:17 pm

        Whoahhhhhhh… we’re wading into deep water here. ‘ }

        You could say once it’s gone in through your eyes, in to your head, it’s all a simulation, a personal version that we’ve tweaked with our preconceptions and our misconceptions.

        Perhaps it’s not for nothing that we talk about ‘getting impressions’ and in reproducing something we talk of ‘taking an impression’.

        We could move on to a more profound level and consider it in terms of phenomenology but that way lies madness, where the whole contention dissolves ‘before your very eyes’. ‘ }

        To be useful I think you have to introduce the idea of ‘playing along’ and keep it within certain bounds of communicability.

        On that basis I’m willing to evaluate any image that comes before my eyes, on its own merits and my reading of it, without asking myself the truth or fiction question. Just because it’s ‘real’ doesn’t necessarily mean it has resonance for me and the same for the converse.

        I believe that personal ‘truth’ can be found in anything; real, acted, re-enacted, or imagined.

        In the end perhaps that’s what it comes down to, having faith in a belief; a faith that can’t be over turned by gainsaying. You say tomato I say tomater. ‘ }

      • Keith Greenough
        4 February 2011 at 4:37 pm

        Staged documentary, like simulacra, denotes fear of and a denial of the actual real event……I confess that I am very far from being an expert on Baudrillard but I am not sure why this is necessarily the case. In most if not all staged photography there was never an actual ‘real’ event corresponding to the staged event. The artist/photographer has simply chosen a simulation as the best way for them to convey the concept he/she wishes to get over. Does making such a choice imply a fear or denial of reality?

      • CliveW
        4 February 2011 at 4:51 pm

        To add a note of levity it seems to me that the French have always been envious of American pop culture and Baudrillard was motivated in developing his ideas to prove that Johnny Hallyday was just as good as Elvis.

        Hahaha ‘ }

      • Keith Greenough
        4 February 2011 at 4:55 pm

        C’est vrai n’est pas?

      • CliveW
        4 February 2011 at 5:08 pm

        It’s all true! Or is it? ‘ }

      • CliveW
        4 February 2011 at 5:11 pm

        That reminds me of F for Fake.

      • 4 February 2011 at 7:53 pm

        Nigel’s earlier comment about re-enactment of historical events got me thinking. When we look at re-enactments, whether a Shakespeare history play or a 1950s film of the Wild West or a contemporary re-enactment of the Civil War we see them as a mirror of the society and time in which they are made. They may give some insight into the period they describe but they almost always give more insight into the period in which they happen.

        And that’s pretty much what I feel about Bourouissa’s work. The pictures are striking and remind me very much of film stills. They seem to be mythologising the events and perhaps Bourouissa’s reaction to them and his own values. They will undoubtedly look good on a gallery wall and they very effectively provoke discussion about the nature of art, reality and simulation. In that sense they may well lead to insight or communicate Bourouissa’s view of the world.

        What they don’t seem to me to do is to give any more insight into the lives of the individuals in the pictures than I had before I saw them. Unlike a film or play I can’t hear their voices or see them move and I don’t know their names. In the modern world it would have been very easy to make a body of work which allowed them to speak or comment on the images and add their own thoughts and insights.

        Instead we have silent and rather formally beautiful photographs hanging on the wall of a gallery (and reproduced online and in print). Does that matter? It feels like a missed opportunity to me.

        Of course one can argue that all reality is a construct and that this work is effectively drawing our attention to that, and perhaps reminding us that people in these estates have little voice in society and are only present to most of us through the distorting mirror of the media. I wouldn’t deny those points but that is hardly a new or (in this elaboration) profound or particularly socially useful message.

      • CliveW
        5 February 2011 at 9:27 am

        Dreaming on it, perhaps the need to know if its real or fake is a manifestation of fear of the Trickster.

      • Keith Greenough
        5 February 2011 at 10:53 am

        ‘Unlike a film or play I can’t hear their voices or see them move and I don’t know their names. In the modern world it would have been very easy to make a body of work which allowed them to speak or comment on the images and add their own thoughts and insights’

        This is a valid criticism which could apply to much documentary photography. It made me think about documentary photographers who have involved their subjects in the work. I came across this by Wendy Ewald.

        May be of interest. It gave me food for thought.

      • anned
        5 February 2011 at 12:36 pm

        Looking out Bourouissa’s work from my point of view as a non-photographer, they convey a great sense of tension and power relationships that convince me of their reality, knowing its staged doesn’t change that at all for me. In contrast to that, I think for me many media images of actual situations seem to have the effect of distancing one from the human dynamics and emotional reality behind the “real” event. Perhaps that’s to do with the stereotyping that the media seems to tap into, or perhaps its the sheer quantity of images that one sees in newspaper, tv, etc, that stop you looking properly.

      • 6 February 2011 at 9:09 pm

        Keith: I agree that you could apply the point about letting the subjects speak in other documentary photography. Few are quite as produced and stage-managed as this and the point struck me most forcibly here but it can apply in other places. Thank you for the link, which looks very interesting.

        Anned: I’m not sure that the worst aspects of media image portrayal is the nearest comparator: there are many serious documentary photographers working today and it seems to me that those are perhaps a better comparison for this purpose.

  4. Shelly Holland
    2 February 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Thank you Jose, I found this an interesting article.

    I’ve recently become interested in the work of Hanna Starkey, Jeff Wall and Tom Hunter after reading about it in Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art, where it’s referred to as tableau photography. I hadn’t considered it as documentary.

    Personally, I think knowing a photograph is staged makes me look harder for the message.

    • 4 February 2011 at 12:24 pm

      Is that good or bad Shelly? I mean, if it makes you look harder for the message perhaps that’s a good think. Perhaps that’s exactly what the photographer wants you to do.

      • Shelly Holland
        4 February 2011 at 8:14 pm

        Definitely a good thing and why I’m developing a fascination for this kind of work, but I’d thought of staged photography as a whole different genre. Considering this kind of photography as documentary makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, ‘near documentary’ I can live with. That’s probably quite a naive position though, there’s always going to be blurring between the lines of one genre and another.

        Yes, with a staged photograph I do pick up that the photographer wants you to look hard for the message. When a photographer spends weeks or months preparing a staged photograph he must have a vision in his mind that he’s trying to transfer to an image for us to read. He must be trying to say something even if only to himself.

  5. Brian Lavery
    3 February 2011 at 12:56 pm

    If it makes me think then I don’t care that it’s been staged, although my initial perception is different if I know in advance. Capa’s soldier and Eddie Adams’ execution of a Viet Cong guerilla both make strong statements, as does Picasso’s “Guernica”. I’m only surprised that more photographers aiming at the documentary/art market haven’t staged their work.
    When a photographer visibly enters any situation isn’t the scene then being staged to some extent by the participants, aware that they are being recorded?

    Ah hah!

  6. Neil MacG
    3 February 2011 at 1:15 pm

    In asking “Does it really matter whether a documentary image is staged or real?” the answer is surely dependant on context. Within the art community the answer may well be no, but given the overwhelming desire on the part of some within this body of people to dispute anything and everything then I guess there has to be some who would say yes. However if the question is opened up to the wider community I think the answer is more likely than not to be yes – it does matter.

    While many will acknowledge the ability of a photographer to make an image misrepresent a situation, a documentary image that does not represent reality is more likely to be seen as just a “stunt” and therefore of little value. For others – a documentary image that purports to show a crime taking place may have a completely different impact in the eyes of the legal community. Firstly it could be offered as evidence of a crime that was not committed or perhaps as supporting evidence of a crime that WAS committed. The intriguing aspect of these scenarios is that in offering the image as evidence of a crime it actually BECOMES the crime albeit a different one to that displayed.

    So yes – I think that in the broader sense it does matter whether the documentary scene is real or not. That’s not to say that it necessarily devalues the image as a piece of art, but that is just one aspect. The question is how honest is the image when presented to it’s audience.

  7. CliveW
    3 February 2011 at 2:20 pm

    ‘When a photographer visibly enters any situation isn’t the scene then being staged to some extent by the participants, aware that they are being recorded?’

    Following on from that Brian perhaps there’s a way in which the photographer has staged them self; as being the kind of photographer that takes a certain kind of picture, filtering out anything that doesn’t reinforce their self image of who they are as a photographer.

    …it’s the best I can doooo ‘ }

  8. 3 February 2011 at 2:28 pm

    I know I am a cynic, and I know I very rarely believe the total accuracy of a documentary photograph, but unless the photographer categorically states that the image is ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ does it matter. If Frank Hurley had photographed events as they occurred during Shackleton’s expedition on the ‘Endurance’ I doubt if the prevailing circumstances would have allowed for clear images. However, by re-enacting the events, or presenting a tableau, whatever one chooses to call it, he was able to reinforce the drama and the dangers encountered by Shackleton and his crew, and make the whole expedition more meaningful to the viewers of his images.

    Surely we all know that there is nothing new in the staging of documentary photographs. Roger Fenton did it in the Crimea, and from thereon in the list is endless. Frank Sutcliffe ‘staged’ his images of the Whitby fishermen and, by careful selection, produced images which were so impressive and indicative of the lives of his characters.

    Moving beyond the photograph to the live-time film – yes, I accept that what I SEE may be real and not staged, but is it really an exact interpretation of what is happening all around, or is it the photographer’s interpretation? From the moment of choice an image is ‘staged’. I repeat, does it matter if an image is HONESTLY presented as an indication of events which are or have happened? The question should be whether the photographer is attempting to influence our own interpretation of events, as in showing what ‘their side’ has done to ‘our side’, without showing the other side of the issue, or is the photographer simply saying ‘look, this happened here, I thought you might like to know’.

    I told you I am a cynic!

    • 4 February 2011 at 12:29 pm

      Good points Norma. But things don’t just happen; we sense them hapenning. Which means that what I sense when I see something happening is not necessarily what you sense. We need to ackowledge that relativism and be aware of its implications in documentary phogoraphy. But at the same time we musn’t let cynicism creep in because otherwise, what would be the point of taking a photograph in the first place?

  9. John
    3 February 2011 at 5:58 pm

    As a newbie to OCA I find the discussion interesting. Stock photography surely relies on shared meanings – we must recognise the stock office as such otherwise it will fail in its purchased context. A documentary photgrapher chooses what to include or exclude from his frame for a reason – aesthetic or to make a point,so it lacks objectivity since we do not see the big picture, merely the sample chosen. However staged ‘documentary’is also created to produce an effect aesthetic or to make a point.Would the composition and content need to be more generic or stereotyped to resonate with that shared meaning (would that count as cliched?)

  10. 3 February 2011 at 11:07 pm

    A photograph seems to contain both reality and fiction! One can seldom be sure of where those differences lie … !

  11. Keith Greenough
    4 February 2011 at 9:20 am

    I have come into this debate quite late and so will try to avoid repetition.

    The initial issue raised by Jose is whether staged photography such as that by Bourouissa is documentary photography. This depends of course on how one defines the term documentary. From what I’ve read this seems to be an open issue with many different interpretations. My own view is that it is not documentary in its purest sense which requires objectivity. In the case of staged photographs the artist/photographer is clearly imposing their own subjective view into their work.

    On another level however works such as those by Bourouissa Jeff Wall etc do comment on issues in society and have the capacity to influence the thinking of the viewer in the same way as pure documentary does. I understand that Jeff Wall calls his work of this type ‘near documentary’.

    In Wall’s case I think he uses staging for a range of other reasons. He wishes to control precicely the action within the frame. He avoids criticism of abuse/voyeurism which pure documenartary attracts. He structures his work to make historical art/cinematic references. He works with large format to produce huge large scale transparencies for art gallery display. This naturally makes it impossible for him to use reportage/street photography techniques. He also wants his works to be accepted as art, reflecting his intentions and no arbitrary or unintentional elements creeping in. This moves us neatly back into the debate of art versus documentary.

  12. Peter Haveland
    5 February 2011 at 11:45 pm

    For those interested in the critique of the documentary tradition both Allan Sekula and Martha Rosler are required reading.

  13. 6 February 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks for the tip Peter. I think I will look into this some more: it’s a most interesting area.

    • Peter Haveland
      7 February 2011 at 5:38 pm

      You might like to find the book “The Contest of Meaning” edited by Richard Bolton, it’s a bit of a hard read but does have Sekula, Rosler, Rosalind Kraus and many others who critiqu photography from a Post-modern point of view.

  14. Nicholas Bale
    16 February 2011 at 2:49 pm

    Based on an essay The Rhythms of Nature” by Galen Rowell published in his book “The Art of Adventure Photography” in 1995 (back in the days of film), I understand that for photojournalism there is an informal scale of ethics, roughly restated as:-
    “Manipulated” – cannot be used for photojournalism e.g. cloning something out of a photograph.
    “Contrived” – manipulation of setting e.g re-staging of real event. Could cause loss of face for photojournalist if not made clear
    “Controlled” – undisturbed setting, but photographer influences the scene e.g. “hold that pose”
    “Found” – record of the scene as it would have been without the photographers presence.
    I have searched a dictionary, but to my mind “documentary” and “photojournalism” should be aiming at a similar ethical standard photographically. I see no problem with photographers imitating a photojournalistic style to produce interesting images as long as they make clear that the photograph was not a “found” situation.

  15. Rob
    25 May 2011 at 1:50 pm

    I’ve just seen these photographs at CUC in Liverpool (part of Look11). I liked them.

    Are they documentary? Why not? Think of Magritte – ceci n’est pas une pipe!

    As photographs they are certainly documents of what was appearing in front of the camera. A document of a re-enactment, maybe, but a document nonetheless. A version of events that may have happened, just like the brain remembers them I guess.

    A photographer will always make judgements in framing based on their own subjective view – a fixed camera can be objective, a photographer cannot. Although they can pretend to be. Human nature and all that.

    What is really at question is reality, Brik comments on this 80-odd years ago, and how we as people believe what we see – after all, the camera never lies (surely). Baudrillard comes back to it with his simulacra. We have to make our own mind up about what the images mean, and also what the words around those images mean. What does “documentary” mean?

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