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?