What makes a document?

© Jose Navarro 2008

I guess Muammar Gaddafi will not be having a ride in his hot air balloon again anytime soon. The end of his regime must have felt as surreal to him as it felt seeing his UK-made hot air balloon when I was out on a bike ride in Ashton Court in Bristol. I had completely forgotten about this photograph, and it was only while doing one of those random search drifts on my Lightroom picture library that I came across it again.

When I took the photograph of Gaddafi’s very own balloon I didn’t think of it as any more than something purely anecdotal, a good dinner table conversation starter. But recent events in the North African country have made me think very differently about this photograph. Now I look at it and I see a document. A document of what you’ll be wondering? That depends on what you read in the image. I personally see the sad evidence of an unquestionable megalomaniac condition and Gaddafi’s pan-African ambitions, which have been dramatically ended. The huge portrait of the ill-fated leader looking up – to God? – or down on you, depending on how you want to see it… the map of Africa…the text above it reading “Africa Union Man”… Within the new context of a post-Gaddafi era the photograph of a simple hot air balloon acquires a new dimension, a different meaning. Context, a necessary attribute in a documentary photograph, as it is clearly emphasised in a book a recently reviewed for We Are OCA.

But is it really context that makes a document? Or is it time? Because that photograph then, in the spring of 2008, is not the same as that photograph today, in August 2011. Do you think I’m over-stretching the nuances of the image? May be I am. But what will we make of the same image in, let’s say, 70 years time I wonder?

Pueyo de Jaca, Spain. ca. 1933
Spain, ca. 1940. Unknown photographer.

70 years span between the taking of the above photograph and when I saw it for the first time. When my grandfather, pictured on left in his officer uniform, received a copy of this image he must have thought it was just a snapshot of him and the local priest. A photograph for the family album. Now you add some time to the photograph, almost three quarters of a century, and the contextual information that all that time has churned out. Everything that we know about the Spanish Civil War, which finished not long before the photograph was taken. With the benefit of 70 years of hindsight I see in this photograph more than my grandfather Gumersindo and a priest. I see an empty wall in the midday sun which acts as a metaphor for that sterile post-Civil War Spain. I see two symbols of power, those pillars of Franco’s regime, the Army and the Clergy. In other words, I don’t see my grandfather so much but what he represented. Time has made him a document.

That’s unless I put this image back in the family album it belongs to. Unless my father tells me again of how my grandfather avoided summary execution by jumping out of the box of a lorry on his way to where the firing squad was waiting for him. And how he spent three days and three nights in a hole in the wall in a cemetery, fooling the enemy and surviving a certain death. Good man “Gumer” ([goomer]) as we called him; I wouldn’t be here ruminating about what makes a document if it weren’t for him. Back in the family album this photograph becomes again what it was always meant to be: a family photograph.

So is it time or is it context that makes a document? Or is it something else?


  1. RobTM 27 August 2011 at 8:34 am

    Interesting piece Jose.

    My own view is that any photograph is inherently a document, it can not be taken away from that state of being entirely. It can be something else as well, but it will always be a document. I suppose it’s down to the interpretation you put on the word document, much as you do on “landscape” or any other genre of photography.

    If you take away the Subtext of the Spanish Civil War, and the photograph sits in your family album. It is still a document of your family. It may lose some of the wider significance that can be assigned to it through knowledge of the situation in Spain in the 40s, but it still documents that he was a military man of a certain rank and branch of service, and that he had at least some connection with the clergy (perhaps not a surprise for a Spaniard, or maybe this is then my own stereotyping…). If nothing else it also documents that he stood in front of a large wall on a sunny day.

    What you read into photographs will depend on your own knowledge and perspectives, and this has been discussed many times before with reference to the various thinkers of recent times. But, at the end of the day, even the latest Gursky will be a document, as well as his own art. If nothing else it will document the state of the art photography market at this current time, and what was being produced during this certain epoch. With some additional information, it also lets you know what value is placed on such work.

    This is all something I’ve been looking at recently with my research into Japanese photography, and how an early daguerrotype found in someones attic has taken on significance way beyond the portrait it once was as it is now the first surviving photograph of a Japanese by a Japanese. It’s now a national treasure. Once upon a time though, it was just a photograph of a person: perhaps of a Samurai before going off to a battle, perhaps of someone before some other event such as a wedding, or maybe just someone was walking past a photo studio and wondered “what is this new technology from the West?” In this case, time has influenced the importance of the photograph, but it was always a document of something, or someone.

  2. AMANO 27 August 2011 at 11:28 am

    What a fascinating story behind the photo of the officer and the priest which did initially, for me, summon up what you refer to as the pillars of Franco’s regime and which I see as pillars of contemporary society where so many resources are still put into war (Afghanistan,Iraq,Libya etc) while the morality of the Church and many of its’ views still dominate.

    The Gaddafi balloon is striking yet an image hard to encapsulate at present.

  3. Stan Dickinson 27 August 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Time & context are not mutually exclusive. Time changes context just as different contexts at the same time result in different readings (the image of Gumer in the family album in 1940 would produce a different reading than if it was in the hands of his former enemies – or his fellow fighters, for that matter).

    Our individual readings bring with them all the complexities of our individual experiences, emotions, prejudices etc. Barthes photo of his mother had the punctum for him, but he knew it wouldn’t be the same for his readers.

    The time; the context; the reader; her/his experiences; the presentation; what someone else says about it – I think, as photographer (artist?) you create a document and you perhaps believe that it holds a secret which you will reveal to others (be it over the dinner table or in a deeply political context) – but you put it out into the world and it is no longer yours (be you an unknown photographer in wartime Spain or Jose on his bike in Bristol).

    1. Jose 27 August 2011 at 5:41 pm

      So no matter how hard we try there is no guarantee that what we want to say with our pictures will be ‘heard’ by the viewer. We have no control over the cultural context our images will be shown or the cultural baggage of the viewer. So our photographs will always be ambiguous – the ambiguity that characterises post-modernity. If we give in to it then we’d better sell our cameras on eBay and do something different. Surely there have to be some universal values that we can rely on so that our photographs are effective tools for communication. Or is this too naive? Perhaps we take photographs with a specific audience in mind, however subconscious this process may be.

      1. Stan Dickinson 28 August 2011 at 11:48 am

        Certainly, we make our pictures with a purpose; we have something to say and some drive to say it out loud – even if the message is just about the very ambiguity of what we are doing. And, in the face of the uncertainty of how the viewer will read our work, I guess we have to work even harder at the way we construct our message.

        I’m sure you’re right that, whether consciously or subconsciously, we do take photographs with an audience in mind – even if sometimes it’s only ourselves (taking photographs to see what things look like when they’re photographed – though, since Gary Winogrand left lots of undeveloped film, he didn’t actually see the results, so maybe he didn’t really know why he was doing it? Sorry, going off at a tangent there).

        But, ‘universal values’? At an individual level, we will bring our values to the work we produce; and we may well believe that those values could/should be universal. It probably isn’t too big a leap to talk about the universality of the concept of value; but it feels like a giant step to be confident that there really are universal values in todays world (or indeed that there ever were). Maybe I’m just being cynical?

        1. AMANO 28 August 2011 at 5:51 pm

          As I recall, it was Gary Winogrand who commented that “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”

          Sometimes, I find myself having to explain to people why I photograph and on reflection, I can come up with reasons such as “to help preserve this animal”.

          It can be distracting if one thinks about the audience when photographing. Does one need a reason for doing it?

          Human motivation is not so easy to understand in a matter of fact way!

  4. AMANO 27 August 2011 at 2:18 pm

    One of the more interesting books on Photography that I have read is Photography: a very brief introduction by Steve Edwards, a media professor at the Open University.In it, he states that the photograph can never really be separated from being both a document and a work of art. With an individual photograph, the extent to which it may be art or document can be determined and certainly many images lean to one side or the other.

  5. anned 27 August 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I think the story supplied by Jose is what makes this photograph a document – whether a family photograph documenting family history or a photograph which allows us to see an aspect of Spanish history. Without the date, the place, the personal knowledge it would be very much less reliable as a document. All we could say for sure is that there are 2 men in uniforms against a wall we can then bring in our own knowledge and associations to play as we look at it. We could begin to try and place it in historical context through the type of uniform, possibly from the type of photograph. But I don’t think that I would be able to date or place it reliably enough to know the historical context, certainly I wouldn’t be able to guess Jose’s family connection or story.

    I’m speaking from a position of almost complete ignorance, but if we are to look at a photograph as a document don’t we need to have knowledge of at least some parts of the context it was taken in otherwise we don’t have a reality to place it in, we only have our own possibly incorrect assumptions – in which case doesn’t it becomes an image rather than a document.

    An image loose from its context can be read in so many ways that diverge from the original reality, whereas I would have thought that a document would need to have an anchor in the original reality even though it would still be open to differing readings despite that.

    1. AMANO 27 August 2011 at 3:25 pm

      For a photograph to be a document, is needs to show something that once existed; we may be ignorant of that but at least it shows us something that was once there though some may question even that by saying that the two figures were concocted in Photoshop.

    2. RobTM 27 August 2011 at 5:33 pm

      I think what you’re questioning is the authenticity – without further information it maybe lacks the provenance that might state it as being a reliable historical document that can be used for certain purposes. However, we only have Jose’s word that the story is true, but immediately it has gained authenticity. The context we have allows us to imprint a different story on the image than we may have done otherwise. I think it was Barthes that stated that the written word is far more expressive than any image – when I first read this I immediately thought “No. A photograph expresses 1000 words – just like the song says.” It only took a little more thought to realise that, whilst a picture paints a thousand words, it’s a different set of words for every viewer. It can be vague.

      Without the back story, the document still exists though, and when queried by people with the correct element of knowledge – of Spanish military uniforms to identify the army and unit, of science to date the paper, or whatever, then the photograph still gives up its information. You just need to be able to read it. Similarly, the Magna Carta is without doubt a document, but it’s information is illegible to me because I can’t read Latin. Does this make it less of a document, or just mean that I do not have the ability to understand it?

      1. anned 27 August 2011 at 8:02 pm

        But to be devil’s advocate for a moment – if it is to be a document without the back story it can only say 2 men stood here once, it would be just a trace of them once existing in that place, so ….. would my footprint be a document too? Maybe I’d have to photograph it:)

        To be more serious, I was thinking about it as if I was going to produce something I intended to be read as a document. In which case I think I would have to provide more than the image. Possibly a series of photographs would do it, but I think maybe I would need to place and date and provide a text for them of some sort to function as a document of something specific in the here and now.

        Its something I was thinking about from the other side of it – in that if I was not intending to produce a document – to produce an image instead, how do I stop it being seen as a document. For instance in the past I’ve constructed images from photographs with deliberately impossible views, repeats, unlikely symmetries, and very badly pixelated, etc, that people have still insisted on seeing as a real place rather than as an imaginary one despite what i thought of as rather obvious clues! I suppose that could have been a document of my activities but it couldn’t ever have been a document of any form of reality even though people seemed to perceive it that way.

        Then moving on to advertising images – they are another form of constructed reality, you could see them as being documents about the activities of advertisers but without the context, without knowing their original purpose you might imagine they were documents of real life in the UK today. Which could be quite misleading.

  6. Jose 27 August 2011 at 5:56 pm

    It has gained authenticity because of the story, no doubt. Your comment reminded me of a photograph which was eventually disqualified from the 2009 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8470962.stm What’s most interesting about this case is that we are not talking about digital fakery but a key piece of information which was disclosed and completely changed the way we responded to the image. And that’s because even though what the photograph shows is a wolf jumping, what it tell us is something about the quality of ‘being wild’. Once we know the wolf may have been trained to do the stunt our perception of the image totally changes. The quality ‘wild’ is immediately gone, even though the actual image is very much the same and real, as in, presumably, not the product of digital trickery.

    1. AMANO 27 August 2011 at 6:26 pm

      The case of the wolf that jumped is an interesting one.

      Those who challenged this image said they recognised the place as being actually in the confines of a park where captive wolves were kept.

      The photographer claimed he had left his equipment with an infra-red beam overnight in a certain remote location in the hills where the image was caught. Questions were asked about the security of his equipment; he replied that he went to retrieve it at daybreak.

      It is easy to be wise after the event but there was a give away here. Why would a wolf jump a gate it could have squeezed through? Wild animals do not expend energy without a reason! If the judges had been really sharp they would have noticed this.

      As you point out Jose, the interesting point here is that we took something as “wild” when it was actually “controlled” and that is surely a rather discomforting thought!?

    2. RobTM 28 August 2011 at 9:36 am

      Again, are we not talking about knowledge to read the image, rather than anything else? If you know wolf behaviour, you recognise that its behaviour is unusual (by the way, on the lane where I live I see deer jump gates when they can also slip through the hedge – different animal I know). Even though the back story has changed, the photograph is still documenting something, now it’s different. The context changes, not the fact that it is a document. It remains a record of that split second in time at that particular location.

      Advertising images are different documents, or at least I interpret them as different documents. They record fashion, products, etc. of that time. Sort of reminds me of the jingles that became the music in Demolition Man… Perhaps I now need to go and lie down for a while.

  7. Peter Haveland 28 August 2011 at 11:52 am

    For those who like to get their theory via fiction and drama try Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the past

    All documents mediate that which they seek to document.

  8. AMANO 28 August 2011 at 5:18 pm

    I think we are discussing “What makes a document!?” and for me, the photograph is a document yet it becomes documentary when it contains details that point to something more than what is being represented. Immediately, I saw this image I saw a theme that of politician and priest, the rulers of our society, yet with Jose’s information I began to see a much more human element, the figures

    {Interesting to hear your animal observations – I also see deer jumping over obstacles but not foxes who are slinkier beasts. What to say of wolves? Deer are very sprightly as a whole!)

  9. Gareth 30 August 2011 at 12:00 pm

    I’ve come to this discussion rather late but I am struck by the something Peter said on an earlier post and Jose’s closing “Back in the family album this photograph becomes again what it was always meant to be: a family photograph.”

    In his earlier comment Peter quoted Giddens, specifically: ‘‘The individual’s biography, if she is to maintain regular interaction with others in the day-to-day world, cannot be wholly fictive. It must continually integrate events which occur in the external world, and sort them into the ongoing ’story’ about the self’

    I think families tell themselves stories and use photo albums to sort and reaffirm the stories. In this way Gumer becomes ‘Good Man Gumer’ and others acquire labels such as ‘black sheep’. The family photo album pictures are documents that support this story telling. The photo is inevitably a document – on it’s own and with our understanding of the 20th century history it documents the close relationship between church and state in Spain at the time – in the album it documents Gumer’s life and his position in the family story.

    1. Jose 1 September 2011 at 6:35 pm

      And I would argue that those’ labels’ and those stories change over time and gradually acquire mythical connotations as family photographs are passed on from one generation to the next. That photograph of my grandfather reinforces the mythical status of someone who survived the Spanish Civil War by escaping his captors in a most spectacular way. That is not unlike what happens in cultures relying on oral history for the transmission of knowledge. As soon as a story is heard by a new generation the story changes, however subtly. The changes always increase the mythical status of whatever is told.

  10. Gareth 1 September 2011 at 8:15 pm

    Some photos are documents as soon as they are written to the memory card of course, this startling example from Monday is a case in point. The editorial and comments however show how people bring their own meanings…

    1. AMANO 1 September 2011 at 8:31 pm

      What an amazing photograph … !!

  11. tom smith 2 September 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Havent got time for anything with that mans picture on it,i cannot belive anyone is giving praise,especialy the one who said great photograph.

    1. AMANO 2 September 2011 at 3:29 pm

      To see the “amazing photograph” please click on the link “example” in Gareth’s comment …

  12. brian 2 September 2011 at 9:38 pm

    That photo is what I want to able to take at some time in the future, but shows where the gap is now. Absolutely brilliant image, wonderful..

  13. anned 4 September 2011 at 11:08 am

    Thank you Peter, That’s interesting to me because at the beginning he’s saying what I was trying to articulate earlier. That the photograph has been taken out of a continuity, and the resulting discontinuity produces ambiguity which is not obvious to us because as soon as words are used with the photograph they produce the effect of certainty.

    But then he goes on to say that that ambiguity is what allows us to find meaning in the photograph because the facts (the trace of recorded reality) are not the same as the meaning. To confuse matters the facts may not be true (appearances can be deceptive) and meaning is constructed as its dependant on cultural construction and our individual understanding of the world. Allowing ambiguity is what encourages subjective response to the photograph and that this is what creates meaning.

    Whilst I think this fits well with my experience of looking at photographs, but what I’m left wondering is where that leaves the idea of the photograph as a document – is an ambiguous document a good thing? Maybe that depends on its purpose or the context its intended to be seen in.

    Looking at Gareth’s example above, for example – what conclusions can we really draw from it without the words that go with it, I’m not suggesting it is actually anything other than what it appears to be, but its just possible that the “perp” actually wrestled the knife off a third party and then gave chase to him (and that the real stabber is just out of the frame).

  14. folio 4 September 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Just a small point. To say, “the facts may not be true” is a contradiction in terms because a fact is true by definition. If it’s not true, it’s not a fact. Appearances can be deceptive, as you say, but the point is, “appearances” and “facts” have different meanings.

    Some dictionary definitions of “fact”:

    – something that you know is true, exists, or has happened;
    – a thing that is known to have occurred, to exist or to be true;
    – a thing that is indisputably the case;
    – something which is known to have happened or to exist, especially something for which proof exists, or about which there is information.

    Agree with your last paragraph that other interpretations of the photograph are possible.

  15. anned 4 September 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Sorry, I was paraphrasing John Berger and so I have oversimplified it, I was meaning facts in the sense I’d just mentioned previously – the fact of the photograph as it being the trace of recorded reality. That is something we know once existed, but it may not be the whole truth or it may misrepresent it.

  16. Peter Haveland 5 September 2011 at 11:04 am

    Mary – it isn’t a small point at all. Post-modernism may even argue that truth and therefore fact does not exist. Terry Eagleton in ‘After Theory’ discusses the errors in this extreme point of view but it is nevertheless the case that facts of the moment become the errors of the past, vide Newton, Boyle, and even Einstein. Heisenberg and Schroedinger et al have suggested that even observations are unreliable so let’s not go through that whole fact truth thing yet again. Anne defines her terms and so her meaning is clear even if the use of inverted commas would have made it even clearer.

  17. folio 5 September 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Hi Peter. My comment was limited to the definition of “fact”. I was simply pointing out that the statement “the facts may not be true” is a contradiction in terms, which Anne has graciously acknowledged. If you want to argue that the dictionary definition is wrong then you’d have to take it up with the publishers of the dictionaries.

    If a “fact” later turns out not to be true then it wasn’t a fact in the first place. As I said in another thread, without facts, and their correct interpretation via logic, reason and science we would still be in the Dark Ages. Sure, you can find the odd exception in the history of science but the overwhelming weight of evidence favours the rational scientific worldview.

    1. CliveW 5 September 2011 at 2:18 pm

      ‘overwhelming weight of evidence favours the rational scientific worldview’

      It’s a paradigm that is useful in some contexts and not so useful in others.

      It may allow us to speculate about the state of the universe a millisecond after the Big Bang but it’s remarkably inarticulate when addressing the human condition holistically.

    2. anned 5 September 2011 at 3:56 pm

      Hey there,
      I was apologising for my inadequate English (and punctuation!) rather than agreeing that it was a contradiction in terms.
      Punctuation has never been my strong point.!?!> 🙂

  18. folio 5 September 2011 at 2:33 pm

    I have to disagree Clive. Science is in every smallest aspect of our lives. Not always for the good, of course, as Chris Jordan’s work shows, but I wonder how many billion Paracetamol tablets are consumed every day all over the world to relieve a toothache or an aching joint? Of course there are areas of darkness, and areas where science has no place, but to limit its contribution to speculation about the Big Bang seems to me an extreme view.

    1. CliveW 5 September 2011 at 3:27 pm

      I’m dramatising the difference. Paracetamol might ease an ache or pain, and they’re not particularly good at that, but they have no effect on an aching heart.

      The standard model might have aspirations to explain every particle of my physical make up but it gives no psychological, moral, spiritual or ethical succour.

  19. Peter Haveland 5 September 2011 at 7:57 pm

    AS an atheist, rationalist, materialist I would tend to agree that ‘overwhelming weight of evidence favours the rational scientific worldview’ However, there are many examples when “the facts may not be true”, indeed it is most likely that it is nearly always the case. Many of Newton and Boyle’s ‘facts’ have turned out not to stand up to rigorous scientific examination in the light of later discoveries. Indeed a good scientist refers only to theories not facts at all. The real problem is that words are as polysemic as images (Barthes) and context alters meaning (post-structuralism?) I am as pedantic as the next person (more so my partner tells me!) but dogmatism tends to fundamentalism ans there are too many examples of where that leads.

  20. AMANO 6 September 2011 at 5:41 am

    An interesting chapter by John Berger; as he says, the photograph has “the status of fact” (digital negatives can be used in legal proceedings) and yet it is certainly not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” (my inverted commas).

    There is the scientific, rational way of viewing the world yet also the aesthetic; intellect and intuition are both required. In photography, one needs a basic understanding of the medium which is largely scientific (e.g. I press this button to make an image) as well as the ability to see that image before it is recorded.

    As an agnostic, I recognise knowing but question the canker of knowledge!

  21. John 7 February 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Muammar Gaddafi, born sometime in 1942 died ignominiously on 20th October 2011, just over three years after the balloon picture was taken and over a year after this post was created, and to some extent forgotten. I was wondering how this would change my contextual understanding of the picture, but it seems not much. By the time Jose captured this bag of hot air it’s titular subject was running out of his own and would be assassinated in the street after being pulled from his shelter about two years hence. Copyright forbids the use of images that might compare the two portraits of Gaddafi, the one on the balloon, another (of many) with blood streaming from an exit bullet wound near his temple.
    That time changes perspective is common currency, but I would say that time can change fact and/or truth. What we see in pictures, such as the military grandfather of Jose aligning himself with the member of the church to me, is still a statement of fact – a documented fact – and a fact (to me that is) that the state conspired to govern and control. My connotation from Jose’s picture would be that it was integral to a pervasive European malaise that blighted the people’s of that continent for generations – and is still current – just think of the Magdelane laundries surviving until the late ‘90s using religion as means of subjugation and in league with the state. The picture, as Rob goes on to suggest, documents that fact, but also that as Jose has provided the/a provenance to the picture, it allows to us project a mediated response to the image. The balloon’s imagery however might have been an image of a buffoon, until his fall, when ‘new truths’ were revealed. We don’t know what the truth behind the meeting between the military man and the man of the cloth, it could be perfectly naïve, we perhaps want to believe Jose; because to do otherwise might mean we start to judge the men by our own prejudices, after all there are known truths; there are also unknown truths….

  22. Jim D N Smith 29 July 2013 at 7:02 pm

    What Makes a Document ? – Exercise

    The question of the title is expanded by Jose to ask:

    “But is it really context that makes a document? Or is it time?”
    And these questions are dealt with in some detail, with which I am happy enough. However, it seems to me that in addition to these dimensions it seems relevant to add some further questions:

    Is it the content of the image that makes it a document?

    A document with minimal content, such as a picture of a blank wall, lacks informational content and personal resonance for most viewers. So, yes, and it is quite obvious, the content is important. It is important for information, personal significance, emotional response and for historical cultural significance.
    Is it the perspective and interest of the viewer, i.e. the personal significance?
    E.g. from Jose’s comment about the image of his grandfather: “I see an empty wall in the midday sun which acts as a metaphor for that sterile post-Civil War Spain.” This comment comes from the perspective of someone used to interpreting photographs professionally, and having a cultural background in which to locate the Spanish Civil War in some depth, as well as it being a significant family image. The personal significance dimension of photographic interpretation means that some photographs will be documents for some people, but perhaps not for others.

    Is it the cultural significance accorded by society at large to the event depicted?

    Alongside the personal significance of an image there is the wider cultural significance. Whilst an historical event might be open to various interpretations, many events have assumed a shared cultural status as being of significance – such as images from the fall of the World Trade Centre. The cultural significance of some images then is more likely to help identify an image as being documentary in nature.

    Is it the way in which the photograph was framed or constructed?

    Artistic framing and constructing of images is less noticeable, and less intended with much documentary photography, which may be more about capturing the moment or the content rather than being overly concerned with the aesthetic. Of course, some highly proficiency photographers manage to do both, e.g. Don McCullin. However, the aesthetic is perhaps not a necessary dimension of documentary photographs.

    Is the photograph authentic, and does this matter?

    A case in point then would be the famous Valley Of The Shadow Of Death made by Roger Fenton in 1855, which is considered to be one of the oldest known photographs of warfare. It may well also be one of the oldest known examples of a staged photograph, with the path with cannonballs to make the photograph have more impact. I guess that one way or another it is a documentary photograph, although the interpretation might be more difficult depending on whether or not the viewer is concerned about the authenticity of the image. It is certainly real but perhaps not a direct representation of the reality it purports to represent. Hence I think authenticity is a dimension of documentary photography that is ethically important, and open to personal interpretation, rather than being a totally necessary part of being a document. I would however rate it as highly desirable.

  23. curriehannah 25 September 2013 at 11:34 am

    Exercise- What Makes a Document?

    We see here that Jose makes some very interesting points on what exactly makes a document. The main argument here is simply; when does a photograph become a document? Does it automatically become a document from the very moment it is photographed simply because it once was? Or does it develop the ‘document’ status over time? Or, furthermore, does a photograph need the context of the scene explained before it can be labelled?

    Personally, I feel the latter is the most accurate description of a document. I agree with Anned’s comment here who states the following;

    “I was thinking about it as if I was going to produce something I intended to be read as a document. In which case I think I would have to provide more than the image. Possibly a series of photographs would do it, but I think maybe I would need to place and date and provide a text for them of some sort to function as a document of something specific in the here and now”

    An image cannot simply become a document just by simply ‘being’. For we cannot unequivocally know exactly what the image is truly of, or what it is trying to document. In Jose’s example of the photo of her grandfather; this image did not become a document for me until Jose gave it context. Prior to her explanation, it was simply an old image of two ominous men against a wall; for this was all I could be sure of. But with Jose’s explanation, it becomes a recording of that time- of the Spanish Civil War itself, and of Jose’s family history.

    In conclusion, to say that every photograph taken is automatically a document suggests that it is documenting something. But if we do not know what that ‘something’ is, then we are left with theories and ideas that are not accurate or applicable to the document itself. So therefore, I feel that a photograph cannot become a document without context.

  24. Sarah G 16 October 2013 at 10:45 pm

    Exercise: What makes a document?

    Looking at the original post and photograph, a couple of years have passed since this was first posted, Gaddafi is no longer in power, his regime has collapsed and has gone from news to old chip paper. I’ll admit that while I was watching the news surrounding this, I hadn’t grown up with any knowledge surrounding the Gaddafi regime, so I can’t comment politically on this aside from the fact that looking at the balloon to me is an anachronism something that passed me by. However that could be said of any event that’s happened in the past, whether it’s recent or a hundred years ago. For a photograph to be a document I feel that there needs to be another level applied to the ‘seeing’ or ‘reading’ of the image. The balloon image is only part of a document in my eyes, it’s not complete as I don’t know why it’s there, is there a reason why this was chosen by the people flying it, are they making a political statement, if so why and why have they chosen Bristol to do this. It throws up many more questions than can be answered and without the context behind this; the photograph is just a moment in time and needs the context. As viewers we very much bring our own background with us, referencing the comment from Rob TM “are we not talking about knowledge to read the image, rather than anything else” I believe that to read an image, we need to add something. Whether that’s background knowledge, research or something else, the context that I bring to an image to place it will be different to the next person, and with the nature of learning, my view today might not be my view in six months’ time. Time can add to the context, only in the sense that with it could come increased knowledge on the situations surrounding a moment captured but also taking an image out of the context such as Jose’s image taken out of the family album becomes a document and then reverts back to what is was first seen as, a memory of a family member.

  25. Asta Tamule 17 October 2013 at 2:44 pm

    My opinion document is the fact of something happened, we see an old picture of two men, but this image doesn’t let us know how things happened, what was before and after, how this changed situation. How we can call this a document if we can not get enough information by looking at it?This picture with no author’s comments doesn’t make document! Even then an author tells us a story, how we can be sure is true fact?There is no evidence…If it would be series of images caught people in action, we could tell this is a fact. For example someone caught steeling, this could be used as evidence in court.
    This image doesn’t gives us any facts, story does…

  26. Pdog19 17 November 2013 at 5:24 pm

    My response for P2: Documentary, Exercise 3. Jose poses a question…

    Bearing in mind I just had the joy of reading Walton on the transparency of photographs – I promise not to talk about fictional or directly seeing. My first point would be that in order to be a document the photograph needs to be of a ‘real’ event, so regarding this photograph (as Rob stated) “If nothing else it also documents that [Jose’s Grandfather] stood in front of a large wall on a sunny day.” That said, I do not question that a fictional novel is a document.

    With respect to time, I believe a number of elements need to come together for that photograph to become a document and then to have any gravitas in later years. For example, that:

    1. The photograph was taken in the first place
    2. Events conspire to enable the photograph to become a document
    3. The photograph is found and that somebody knows the story, thus providing provenance and creating a document of interest
    4. The ‘owner’ is perceptive enough to understand that it is a document
    5. The document can find an audience that are receptive and interested.

    A classic example of this is the photography book “Bill Wood’s Business”. Diane Keaton (actress) purchased a photographic archive and within the archives were thousands of images of Fort Worth, Texas, taken by Bill Wood, over the period of thirty years. The photographs effectively chronicle the lives of the residents and whilst individually they are quite ordinary, together they provide a fascinating insight into all aspects of daily life during that period. All 5 of the above points occurred and resulted in the publication and distribution of Wood’s work.

    Regardless of how perfectly executed the photograph, as Anne stated (most ably, albeit unknowingly, paraphrasing Berger) “the document would need to have an anchor in the original reality even though it would still be open to differing readings”. Berger states that, regardless of subject, because “photographs have been taken out of a continuity” they are all ambiguous. Returning again to Wood’s photographs, the captions are very generic because little or no information was included with the archive. This does not make the collection any less documentary in function, just less detailed in factual information.

    Anne’s follow on question, “can one photograph be a document?” is very valid. It opens the discussion to the amalgamation of words and images and the age old debate that ‘if you need words you photograph isn’t good enough’. Looking back at the images proffered by Jose, regardless of time (his grandfather 70 years ago and Gaddafi in 2008) both required ‘words’ to engage the audience. Are we now talking about the difference between photojournalism, reportage and documentary photography?

    Jim adds an interesting dimension, that culture means that certain documents will have greater significance to certain sections of the population. I would extend this beyond just culture and include age, disability, ethnic origin, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic background and political opinion; I have no doubt there are numerous other ‘groups’ that could be added to this list.

    So, finally, what makes a photograph a document?

    In my opinion, as long as it is an image (or multiple images – photomontage) of a real event(s) it is a document.

    This is one of the more insightful reviews of the difference between photojournalism and documentary photography written by Antonin Kratochvil (Czech-born American photojournalist). http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=101591

  27. Nigel Monckton 25 November 2013 at 10:22 pm

    Exercise – What makes a document?

    A document is “…any concrete or symbolic indexical sign, preserved or recorded toward the ends of representing, of reconstituting, or of proving a physical or intellectual phenomenon.” So says Suzanne Briet in ”What is documentation” – one of the founding texts of information science http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~roday/briet.htm. On this basis both the balloon, and the image of the balloon are documents – the one of the power of a leader, the other of the existence of a particular balloon. The photo is also a secondary document, in that it references the message of the first document.

    In this sense it is difficult to disagree with RobTM’s opening gambit that all photos are documents. But documents of what? Shelley catches the idea somewhat in Ozymandias:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains.”

    The eponymous statue was a document to the greatness of Ozymandias – yet now it is a document to human frailty.

    As Anne implies the difficulty with photos is that they are very incomplete documents. In “Another Way of Telling” Berger argues that individual photos cannot tell the whole story – they are simply quoting from appearances. What we can gather from that quote depends on the amount of information in the photo – the size of the quote – and the context in which it is used. In this sense it is little different from a text quote and behaves in a similar way.
    The quote can come with context, or we can provide some from our experience – which of these is the most authentic is questionable. If we trust the source of the photo and the supporting context, we regard it as authentic, if we don’t we may prefer to believe an understanding based on our own limited knowledge. That “knowledge” invariably changes with time – so perhaps one answer to Jose’s final question is that – as Stan suggested – both time and context contribute to the making of a document.

    This is amply illustrated by the second image. Without Jose’s supporting story this is quite a short quote – we can identify a priest and someone in military uniform – but there is little evidence of location or period. In the absence of Jose’s extra information we might conclude this was a meeting of significant figures, or a chance meeting in a street or even an out-take from a spaghetti western, depending on our own experiences, prejudices and interests.

    Document is a slippery concept – buffeted by time, context and our personal baggage – especially in the case of a single quote from appearance.

  28. Andreas F 3 February 2014 at 10:11 pm

    What makes a document?
    A very good question, but is it necessary? Do we need to divide up photography into different genres by saying, this is a document, this is fine art and this is photoshop-art?

    In general I think that every picture is a document as you have to look at the audience. Even if it just is a picture for me and you it can well be a document for the one that took the picture or the family if you take the example of Joses picture.

    In the earlier comments were several points that people said were preconditions. Knowledge about the context, the time and authenticity.
    But is that really the case. When looking e.g. at the shell shocked soldier of Don McCullin you don’t have much information if you never have read about the picture. You can tell that it is a presumably american soldier with a frightened expression. The condition of clothing tells us that it probably is before the Gulf war and after the Second World War. There is nothing more in the picture itself. Does it make it less a document?
    When addressing authenticity. Photography itself just shows things that exist or existed as said by Walton and Berger, of course Photoshop and CAD gives other possibilities but to make it simpler I leave them out of the discussion.
    Another comment discusses whether staged pictures as the pictures from the American civil war qualify as documents. In my opinion they do, even when it is, with nowaday eyes, inte ok to manipulate pictures. Going a step further. Robert Capas solder that is being shot. The discussions are going on…staged or not….and here you get again the question. document or not? In that case I have actually no idea what I should answer.
    Ambiguity was also in the discussion earlier on. But are there photos without ambiguity? Not if you don’t provide them with a text explaining the fore and after.

    When looking at Joses interpretation of the picture from Spain I think…did the photographer at that time really thought about the white wall as a symbol for post civilwar Spain and the conditions under which Franco decimated opposition? Did the photographer maybe just like the wall as a background or that was maybe the place the met and the photographer just said…oh, lets take a picture of them both. Nobody knows if they were friends, enemies or other.
    Are there universal values?
    When looking at research on e.g. happiness it is difficult to get universal values or things that make people happy around the world. Family, sex, friends are generally named. But already when looking basics as colours we got a problem. White in the west is purity, peace and so on while it is a symbol of death in Asian countries.

  29. mattjamesphotos 31 May 2014 at 7:28 pm

    Exercise, What makes a document?

    I believe context, content, time and audience make a document.

    Although we may not all understand an image and its contents this does not make it any less of a document than a fully explained image.

    A Selfie taken of a teenager posted on facebook or Twitter showing what she is wearing to go out on a Saturday night becomes a document straight away, it is documenting these facts but is of a little interest to anybody outside her circle of friends, this does not stop it becoming a document. With time this will become more of a document to her as it will remind her what she looked like, what she was wearing and stir memories of a particular night or time in her life. With more time this document may even be of interest to others as it is showing how people acted socially at a particular period in time. We do not need a narrative or a back-story of who and why this simply documents a period in time. Like the image of Jose Navarro’s grandfather, this is still a document without the narrative, but like the Selfie this image has much more meaning to him and his family and others when explained.

    Time will make the document more valuable and if we look at a more high profile document time and exclusiveness may generate the need for a narrative, a photograph of an aeroplane crashing into the world trade centre does not need a date, location or explanation but in 100 years time it may. A more exclusive image of a person or location may need a narrative now for everyone to understand fully what they are looking at.

    So to be a document the image needs to record something, it then needs an audience, even if it is only the person taking the photograph, if the image is to be more widespread then the image may require a narrative, time may increase the need for this. Any photograph is a document to somebody, otherwise why take it, who am I, who is anybody to say somebody’s photograph is not a document?

  30. Richard Down 16 June 2014 at 10:53 pm

    Exercise: What makes a document? WeAreOCA blog response 16/06/2041

    In his post in August 2011, Jose expanded this question “.. is it time or context that makes a document? Or is it something else?”

    Having read through all 44 responses to this post and accepted the definitions put forward of a document (a record) and to document (the process of making a record) I have concluded that even without context, a photograph is a document because it has recorded a thing, event or place that exists or has existed. So Jose’s image of Gadhafi’s hot air balloon is a document and in 2008 its context, as Jose explained, was a curiosity, an unexpected sight he felt was worthy of recording. The passing of 6 years and the subsequent events in Libya, culminating in the assassination of Gadhafi have enriched the context. It still retains its original context but we can add other events to our reading and understanding of the image. In this case context and time have made this document. Jose has provided us with the picture and history has expanded the context.

    Other contributors to this forum have mentioned the purpose of an image and how that may or may not inform the context. For this image we have Jose’s explanation of why he made the image of Gadhafi’s balloon but for the image of his grandfather and the priest, the only context we have is the place where the image is found, in the family album and the record of two men, a soldier and a priest, posed in front of a wall in full sunlight. The personal history, provided by Jose via his family and the national history that we can introduce once we have a clue of the period and the place, provide the full context of the document. As I have no personal connection with Spain or this period of history, I can bring nothing extra to Jose’s explanation and I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of his explanation or the document. Once again, passing time has help to contextualise the photograph. Time allows us to evaluate the document in relation to subsequent events.

    The jumping wolf and its authenticity raises other arguments. If we discount digital manipulation, the image of the wolf jumping is indeed a document. Recording as it does that wolves are capable of jumping. The fact that it was disqualified from the competition because it failed to meet the criteria of that competition only raises questions about the motivations of the photographer, not about the truth of what the camera recorded.

    The Notting Hill stabbing picture illustrates discontinuity as pointed out by anned. (Unfortunately Peter’s link to the chapter by Berger is no longer live so I wasn’t able to read it.) The context of the picture has to be carefully explained for it to make sense and the differing interpretations of what occurred from the people present show how difficult it is for police get to the truth of a situation when witness statements differ wildly. Again, this is a document as a record of what occurred in front of a camera for a fraction of a second and is ambiguous. Isolated and without explanation, it is next to useless. Time in this instance could possibly help to put the events into context but it would need more than one brief image.

    So, I have concluded that a photographic record of an person, event or place is a document, even if it gives us nothing more than itself. Adding context, either from our own knowledge or experience, the words of an accompanying text or verifiable history from the passage of time, all contribute to the making of a document.

      1. Richard Down 25 June 2014 at 10:56 am

        Thank you Peter, I’ll take a look and try to get hold of a copy of the book.

    1. Richard Down 25 June 2014 at 10:46 am

      Thank you John, a very interesting interview, again, I’ll try to get hold of a copy

  31. kerrileeb 21 July 2014 at 2:49 pm

    An interesting discussion! I believe that a photograph does not need context to be a document – even if we do not know what exactly it is showing, it still fulfils the definition of a document, which is a record of something. Whatever we shoot becomes a record of that moment, even if what we are shooting is a set-up shot. Like RobTM says, a photograph still exists without the back story. If we did not know the context for Jose’s photo, we would think up our own story for it, or see it as a record of something if we had a little information like where and when the photograph was taken. Richard Down also mentions that no context is needed for a photo to be a document.

    Our view of a photo is influenced by our culture, and experiences. When I look at the photo of the 2 men in Spain, I see something totally different to someone who may be in Spain or related to the person like Jose. I would not have guessed that the person on the right is a member of the clergy! Whilst studying photography in China, we did some interesting comparisons of what we thought Chinese photographers may not shoot but we found interesting, and we also compared the photos from the same brief taken by Chinese and European photographers which was fascinating. How we all interpreted the brief was very much influenced a lot by culture it seemed, and what we were used to – for example the Chinese photographers often documented more positive moments but the Europeans might include more negative moments – like the photo of Notting Hill Carnival. Stan Dickinson also mentioned the influences on us.

    I agree with MattJames who mentioned that selfies posted by teenagers are a document. A lot of my friends post various selfies, including myself when I run in races, in order to show their friend what they are doing – they want to document the moment, make it real. I hate photos of myself generally but will post them of myself after running a race – to prove I was there.

    Time is an interesting one. The way we have taken photographs has changed and many now will grow up without even seeing many prints possibly. Does that mean it is not a document, if there is no physical print? That is another question I was thinking of at the start. We are able to find out a lot about historical events through photographs, but I also don’t think time is important when considering if a photo is a document. I believe as soon as the shutter is pressed, a document is created.

    The Berger book looks good, but not so easily available where I am in Sabah, they only have used copies on Amazon which is not so easy. I may well find a random copy somewhere……The bookshop in Kuala Lumpur couldn’t get it as far as I know from my friend. Thankfully by the magic of Kindle, random book buying over the last few years and getting some ordered in KL I do have a fairly good collection….

  32. Judy Bach 31 July 2014 at 9:44 pm

    Exercise . What makes a document ?

    A document provides information and proof that something happened but does a photograph have to be understood to be actually considered a document? I love old photographs and Jose’s photograph of his grandfather is an interesting one, a photograph from the family album. The image shows two men, an officer and a priest with their backs to a wall , but without context and additional supporting evidence the photograph becomes , as quite rightly pointed out by Anned ” much less reliable as a document” . Nevertheless as a record the image exists in its own right regardless of meaning and I agree with RobTM who observes it is still “inherently a document”. Jose comments “back in the family album this photograph becomes again what it was always meant to be : a family photograph” but I feel this does not lessen it’s importance as a record with personal meaning. Family histories passed orally down the generations are rather like Chinese whispers distorting events at each re-telling, and as Jose remarks “the story changes , however subtly” , hence it is inevitable that the context will change over time.

    The image of Gaddafi is an intriguing one , taken before his death it now serves as a reminder to me of his ignoble end and fall from power , certainly not what it perhaps was intended to symbolise orignally . As succinctly said by Richard Down “history has expanded the context” altering how Jose’s image may be interpreted. Hence time modifies and supplements our understanding but this is not needed to create a document. It does enhance our knowledge but as noted by Mattjamesphotos “any photograph is a document to somebody”.Additionally , as Jim DN Smith, Pdog19 and Kerrieleeb point out , our personal background, be it age , ethnicity , sex , religious or political belief, will influence how a photograph is read and what is understood by it.

    Kerrieleeb raises an interesting topic “ The way we have taken photographs has changed and many now will grow up without even seeing many prints possibly . Does that mean it is not a document , if there is no physical print?” A on-line dictionary definition of document states it is a piece of written , printed , or electric matter that provides information but ( being a dinosaur and of a certain age ! ) I find it strange to think of images on the Web as being considered documents , I like the physicality of prints. Snapchat is an app that allows users to share their images but the recipient can only view for up to 10 seconds before the photograph is deleted , are these , albeit very short lived , documents too ?

  33. philoca 19 August 2014 at 1:43 pm

    When reading through the posts in this thread I found the following comment from RobTM to be of interest:

    “I think what you’re questioning is the authenticity – without further information it maybe lacks the provenance that might state it as being a reliable historical document that can be used for certain purposes. However, we only have Jose’s word that the story is true, but immediately it has gained authenticity. The context we have allows us to imprint a different story on the image than we may have done otherwise.”

    For me a photograph can contribute to documenting an event but cannot in isolation be considered as a document in itself. I consider that a document should, in a feasible manner, provide an authoritative reference of information. With its authority being derived from what is accepted as the formal channels and processes for its production, such as a specific identification card being provided by a state body or a technical document going through the rigours of formal peer review and approval within an industry. I say this more in terms of how I perceive the use of specific terminology. I still greatly believe in the documentary value that the photographic image can provide and its potential for highlighting what is currently occurring (or what has occurred in our world) in a more powerful manner than a formal document.

    Due to the analogue origins of photography we have become to trust the ability of the camera to record an event via what we generally accept to be a true and accurate method. I find the following quote taken from Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ to be a powerful statement in this regard:

    “A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.” (Sontag 1977: 154)

    The ability to contribute towards documentation rather than to form a document in its own right can however be reflected upon from another of Sontag’s statements:

    “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.” (Sontag1977:23)

    To state that one never understands anything from a photograph can be considered contentious but does emphasis the need for context in order to correctly interpret what is being presented in the image and perhaps more importantly why (e.g is the motivation personal, ideological or economic).

    For me time can allow for available information to be added to and for interpretations to form in relation to the contexts surrounding an image. This can infer a greater authority to a photograph but also carries a danger of time smoothing over the complexities that may have been present at the time an image was captured that without an understanding of contexts from different ‘objective’ sources may not be apparent to us.

  34. VesaK 29 August 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Exercise – What makes a document?

    I can see all (plain) photographs being documents. The context then defines how important documents they are. Even a family album photo tells (i.e. documents) something about the past.

    Time can make a photograph a more important document, especially if there are not too many photographs from that time or occasion.

    Borderlines between different photography genres are blurry, as Miranda Gavin explained in the first exercise video. A photograph can simultaneusly be seen belonging to different genres, depending on the viewer. But can Andreas Gursky’s $5,300,000.00 art photograph “Rhein II” also be considered as a document photograph? Doesn’t it “document” some landscape around river Rein?

    Term “Rashomon effect”, which Jose mentioned in the discussion of book “Context and Narrative”, gives very good analogy on how differently viewers can see photographs and photography genres.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein has said that “(in most cases,) the meaning of a word is its use in the language”. Languages are evolving dynamic systems and the word “document” seems to be be evolving too. Or at least it has slightly different meanings in different cultural and different time contexts.

    It seems that the whole idea of this exercise is to make us think about the meaning of “document” and not to accept any old definitions without thinking it through. If this has been the idea of this exercise, it has done it well 🙂

  35. urszula jakubowicz 11 October 2014 at 9:30 am

    I believe that every photograph is a document, its importance however can change with time.

    All photographs are of something or someone that existed at some point in time, a second, one year or seventy years ago. They document the presence of an object, a landscape, or a human being, real or composed especially for the shot and therefore it is my belief that every picture that has ever been taken can be seen as a form of a document.

    Regarding the time aspect of the argument, I do agree that it can enrich the context of the photo and it most often does, but it certainly does not define the document. Not only the historical events, but changes to the landscape, changes in ones features can offer more significant meaning to the photograph. A great example of a personal document can be Nicholas Nixon’s project ‘Forty Portraits in Forty Years’. Photographer documented four sisters by producing a single image each year over a period of forty years. The 2014 photograph is as much of a document as the first photograph taken in 1975, but undoubtedly the first picture consists more of a documentary value, as it presents faces much different from today, it shows an event long gone, maybe even forgotten.

    Looking at the comments above, I can see that a few commentators agree with my beliefs. Kerileeb and Richard Down have similar understanding of what makes a document, although Kerileeb seems to be unsure about the physical aspect of the documentary photograph. I must underline my strong understanding that ALL photographs in any shape or form are of a documentary value. In my opinion the physical aspect does not restrict the definition of a document. There is obviously the element of a digital manipulation, which opens a new can of worms in this argument, but the printed image can also be altered, even if its just by the usual wear and tear, which often comes with age. I’d like to risk to say that even heavy digital manipulations can be seen as a form of a document, as they document the state of the mind of the artist and its imagination. This perhaps does not apply to this argument, as here the purely traditional documentary is being discussed.

    So to summarise, I personally like to treat all photographs as some form of a document. The context does not define it, nor does the time, the latter however can greatly improve the importance of the context.

  36. annag1611 24 October 2014 at 10:16 am

    I partly agree with Urszula in seeing every photo as a document but I also see the importance of documentary photography as expressed by Antonin Kratochvil & Michael Persson in their article on the difference between documentary and photojournalism : “A galaxy of dissimilarity separates subject from viewer, and there can be no connecting across this chasm.”(1) This partly reflects my view on whether a photo is seen as a document or not, particularly because the subject ‘galaxy’ incorporates dimensions of time, space and physical distance all of which are relevant to how a viewer interacts with a photograph. It does not reflect my view because it ignores the emotional connection between the viewer and the viewed. The ‘chasm’ they refer to sucks up the emotion, I suspect.
    My full blog on this can be seen at http://www.annasocablog.wordpress.com

  37. gjcimages 16 November 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Having read the article by Jose and then reading through the comments by other viewers I was initially having difficulty deciding if a photograph is ever a document.
    I’ll be honest I did not understand some of the comments.

    I looked at the OED and found that a document is :-

    ‘A piece of written, printed or electronic matter that provides information or evidence or that serves as an official record.’

    The picture of the army officer and the priest could form an official record but of what? Just a moment in time for us , but for the family of the officer maybe something different. It was really after looking at Gareth’s entry :-

    (1 September 2011 at 8:15 pm Some photos are documents as soon as they are written to the memory card of course, this startling example from Monday is a case in point. The editorial and comments however show how people bring their own meanings…)

    That I started to understand, but I think that was more to do with the image.

    The image shows a guy running away from a man he has just stabbed. The knife is in his hand and the victim, bleeding, can be seen in the background. In this one image we have evidence, information and although not official, it is a record of an event that has taken place.

    I don’t think that time makes any difference, the only important time is the second when the shutter fires. The shooting of President Kennedy, the moon landings and other historical events. The passage of time makes no difference to these events or the images taken of them.

    In researching this topic I looked at Michael Freeman’s, The Photographers Eye. He said that in every image, even that of a police crime scene or a stack of coins, these images would be seen as not particularly interesting other than as a data source.

    In quoting Walker Evans (American photographer,1903 – 1975) he said:-

    “It’s as though there’s a wonderful secret in a certain place and I can capture it. Only I, at this moment, can capture it and only this moment and only me”

    For me it’s what is captured and when that makes the difference between an image and a document.

    Capture a historic event as it happens-image and document.

    Capture an event- image, if with the passage of time, the image contains information that unbeknown to the photographer, becomes a historic event, (i.e., the Titanic Setting Sail) then the image would become a document.

  38. selinawallace 9 June 2015 at 2:49 am

    So, after reading the article and all the replies and following all the links and reading most of the articles linked to, am I in a position to say what I think about What makes a document? I think Rob’s first comment rings truest as a starting point for me: “any photograph is inherently a document”. However, the contents / meaning of the document are not always clearly identifiable. This is particularly the case with single-image documents, where the meaning is essentially non-unique depending on the context of presentation – including the presence or absence of text or other supporting documents. In addition, as Amano quoted: Steve Edwards: “the photograph can never really be separated from being both a document and a work of art.” So some photographs have a position of duality – they both document the scene, and in addition can function as a work of art (though of course not all do, particularly the ‘selfies’ mentioned by a few fellow students!). If the photographer wishes to pin down the meaning somewhat, then he/she needs to accompany the photograph with some kind of anchor – text or other photographs would work well for this purpose. Otherwise the intended meaning may well be lost – Anned discusses this in the form of ambiguity – “Allowing ambiguity is what encourages subjective response to the photograph and that this is what creates meaning.” There is further discussion on ambiguity in the linked pdf by Berger and Mohr. As they point out – a photograph can tell a viewer that a scene existed. “Yet it tells us nothing of the significance of their existence”. And furthermore, there is no link between that scene and today – “Between the moment recorded and the present moment of looking at the photograph, there is an abyss”. Merriam-Webster [LINK: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/document%5D define document as: “an official paper that gives information about something or that is used as proof of something”. A photograph is an imprint of reality, and thus gives information about reality, and for this reason alone, should qualify it the definition of a document.

  39. Jane 14 July 2015 at 8:10 pm

    This thread is very intresting and in general most people seem to agree that a photograph is a document.

    At the very fundamental level, every photograph “fixes a moment in time”, according to Graham Clarke p. 24, and records what was happening at that moment. Indeed, Maria Short refers to these as “documented moments” p.9. Therefore, as both Rob and the course notes assert, I believe that every photograph is inherently a document. Or at least, that every photograph has the potential to be a document. For me this distinction is important as I explain later.

    Time has an essential role to play in determining if the photo is a document. So much so, that the photo’s documentary value may increase over time e.g. A family shot showing a loved one may have greater documentary value if that loved one passes away. It is almost as if a photo can document memories. Similarly as several people in the thread point out, including Jose, an ordinary event captured in a snap shot might subsequently be a document of a significant moment in history.

    The fact that we don’t simply look at a photograph but also “read” it and even derive “meaning” from it (Clarke) would also seem to me to infer on it the status of a document. Amed argues that it is the story that makes the photo a document and that we need some knowledge of the story to allow the image to be a document. Our readings are, however, shaped by whatever assumptions, experiences, expectations or knowledge we bring to the table. The example of the wolf image is a good one where without specialist knowledge we might have “believed” the image to be real. To ensure that the image is read correctly, the photographer might need to include captions and/or text as an anchor as Selina suggests. This would of course help shape or steer our reading. Context might also however be given by accompanying images. Jim Smith suggests that an image without content is not a document e.g. a blank wall. However if that blank wall were part of series of shots of the wall documenting the growth of a climbing rose or the appearance of graffiti then wouldn’t the blank wall be a key piece of evidence?

    The word evidence is important. Clarke states that “Document” means evidence…: in other words, evidence not to be questioned, a truthful account…” p145. Herein lies my caution. Folio talks about facts, and that facts are, by definition, truths. There is an old adage that one man’s truth is another man’s lies. The photographer took the image based on his/her own context. Images are often re-touched, altered, manipulated, blemishes removed, litter erased etc. What if the image of the man running away fro someone he just stabbed was infact an actor on stage? What about images that are reconstructed such as Warren Neidich’s, Contra Curtis, Early American Cover-ups. Are these documents? Are ALL photographs of documentary value? I am not yet sure.

    Maria Short talks about different “Levels of truth” p12 and even goes as far as to quote Bill Jay in “On being a photographer (1997). He asserts that “The only factually correct aspect of photography is that is shows what something looked like under a very particular set of circumstances. But that is not the truth of the event or situation”.

    Clarke, G. (1997), The Photograph, Oxford, Oxford Press
    Short, M (2011), Context and Narrative, Lausanne, AVA Publishing SA

  40. Ed Lerpiniere 21 September 2015 at 3:17 pm



    A written or printed paper that bears the original, official, or legal form of something and can be used to furnish decisive evidence or information.

    Something, such as a recording or a photograph, which can be used to furnish evidence or information.


    To set down for preservation in writing or other permanent form.

    To render (sound or images) into permanent form for reproduction, as by mechanical or digital means.

    To record the words, sound, appearance, or performance of (someone or something).

    Dictionary definitions of words provide a clear and clinical explanation of what a word means, what it doesn’t take into account is that rarely do the users of words actually mean them to be understood in that clear and clinical fashion; everyone has their own interpretation, which will be in small ways at variance with each other, except perhaps in dictionaries and law, and that is clear from the responses that have been returned to this question within the OCA Forum thread.

    My personal view is that every photographic image made and kept, either in printed form or recorded digitally, is by the clinical definitions of Document and Record, a document and, naturally, a record, until such time as the original source and all copies of it are destroyed; the usefulness of such a document and how it changes its state from contemporary to historical is what is in doubt in my mind.

    If we take the example provided by Jose of the wolf jumping over the gate, its usefulness changed at the point where it was adjudged a fake. It went from being considered the best of the best in that competition, to being of no consequence within that framework. However, its usefulness as a salutary warning to abide by the rules was instantaneously created and was possibly immeasurable. It did not stop being a document, or a record, simply because of how it was finally perceived, in fact its usefulness as a warning to a wider audience probably became greater and ensured that it will be more memorable over time than that of its original context.

    When one looks at any document (and by document in this context I clearly mean an image) the viewer places an interpretation on what they see. If there are words associated with that document, and the viewer reads them, they will undoubtedly have some effect on their interpretation of what they’re seeing, which will be to a greater of lesser degree dependent on various variables, e.g. level of interest, reading before or after viewing the document. This then will also possibly change the interest level of the individual viewer in that document and their interpretation of what they’ve looked at and seen. Clearly words associated with the document have an important role which have been clearly illustrated in the example Jose presented of his grandfather and the priest. Without his story the image has no real interest for non- military/religious geeks, whereas as soon as the back story is presented it takes on a much higher level of interest to all of us who’re associated with Jose and this thread.

    So, if any photographic image made is a document and a record, what about the images we make accidentally, or are of poor quality, badly lit, under or over exposed, heads missing etc.? From time to time we all shoot maybe one or two frames (or in my case many more) that are of feet, sky or nonsense, and many more that have other defects which make them unusable. They, by the dictionary definitions, are both documents and records, but are they useful? If one was to attach comments of pertinent observations about why they are as they are, they could be useful as learning points, without them they wouldn’t even elicit a grimace, they’d just be overlooked by all and sundry and possibly have some wondering glances passed.

    Usefulness can also be garnered by any document, whether it’s considered useful at the time it’s created or not. Take the case of Vivien Maier, the unknown children’s nanny from 1950’s Chicago and New York. She clearly wasn’t convinced, or was too shy, to show her images to anyone at the time she made them, but in 2007 they show scenes of how things were fifty years earlier, and although the images prove she was a good photographer, the main interest is in what they depict and what can no longer be seen in real life, thus making them extremely useful and what’s more very interesting.

    The next question I have about documents is, when do they stop being contemporary and become historical? This is important as I’ve just pointed out in the last paragraph; historical attachment can make even the most mundane images into very useful and important documents which could not be said of them at the time of their capture. There’s also the point that if they’re not considered a document or record at the time of their capture, simply because of the lack of content interest, and are destroyed, what does this do for the historical record? There are grave concerns about the loss of images to the world at large now that digital photography is the dominant recording medium and the drop in the number of prints being made as a result, (a secondary question perhaps).

    My belief is that a document changes from contemporary to historical when the last person who could have witnessed the time, event, person, whatever – has died and their remembered description goes with them, even if that remembered description has been recorded along with the document. There is of course the Rashomon effect that has to be taken into account and therefore no one account can be said to be the definitive description, and so the ambiguity of the document comes into being as pointed out by AnneD.

    At the same time as the document is becoming older, moving from contemporary to historical and less people remember what it means or meant at the time, the usefulness of the document can also become less, even to close members of a family for instance. I well remember my parents having many images of people I didn’t know, my paternal grandfather for instance, friends of theirs from their youth, aunts and uncles who died either before I was born or before I was old enough to remember them. These images, whilst forming part of our family “history” mean nothing to me, and probably not to my siblings either for that matter, so their usefulness is very questionable to our family. Never-the-less they are documents, and in some instances have historical value as indicators of their time and so take on a different usefulness.

  41. Sarah D 18 October 2015 at 12:21 pm

    What makes a document?

    Looking at the dictionary for a definition of document I find that a document is “a piece of written, printed, or electronic matter that provides information or evidence or that serves as an official record.”

    I agree with Rob when he says that ‘any photograph is inherently a document’ because all photographs have content and information whether or not their meaning is clear to us. For me, some are more complete documents that others. Their completeness relies on how much information we can get from the image itself and whether there is additional information available like a written narrative as is the case in Jose’s picture of his grandfather.

    Time, content and context make a document. All photographs have content but they don’t necessarily have to have context to be a document. Context is fluid and meaning can change over time as can be seen in Jose’s image of the Gaddafi balloon. Context is also dependent on the viewer or audience and their own personal histories and experiences that they bring to the photograph.

    Photographs can have different contexts. Jose comments above that ‘back in the family album this photograph becomes again what is was always meant to be: a family photograph’ – illustrating that photographs can have many different contexts in different circumstances and for different people.

    As a photographer I do think about my audience to a certain when I am working on a project. I definitely give a lot of consideration to the message I am trying to convey. I agree with Jose when he says that “our photographs will always be ambiguous” but I do believe that we as photographers have some control over this. There are tools we can implement like text to provide context but I do understand that we can only lead an audience so far. I believe that once the photograph enters the public domain then it has a ‘life of its own’ and can be viewed in several numerous contexts by people, misinterpreted by some and not understood by others.

    Document is a loose term associated with photographic images but over time and with the addition of contexts they become more important documents.

  42. hannahfountainoca 22 January 2016 at 1:06 pm

    This blog is very interesting, but I agree with Rob’s statement that “any photograph is inherently a document” in the hot air balloon picture the photographer was documenting the fact that they had seen a balloon with Gaddafi’s face on it, it was only after a few years after the picture had been taken that problems in Africa arose, which could add to the story of picture.

    I believe that every picture is a document but with a bit of time the picture could become more. The picture of the grandfather was at first just a document of his time in Spain before the war and meeting a priest who could have been a family friend or the family priest, it was only after a few years that this picture becomes more with the Spanish civil war.

    Of course there is a danger of over interpreting the image. Yes a soldier and a priest could be seen as the two figure heads of power during that time but there is actually nothing in this picture that suggests the Spanish civil war or any form of fighting, so in that sense this could be seen as over interpreting. However this picture if a document of the authors family and family connections, to the outside world we may not understand why this picture has been taken or the back story but we can see from this picture that it is an old picture due to the paper and the clothes that they were wearing.

    As well as with the Gaddafi picture, to me this picture is just a hot air balloon with his face on, this doesn’t really say to me anything about him looking down on use or looking up to heaven. I think that this is an interpretation of the picture however it does document that that author has seen this balloon on a nice sunny day. There is a danger of over interpreting pictures but I do stick with every picture is a documentation of how we live, dress, see etc.

  43. John Walker 22 January 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Having just joined this group and following the blog, my firm belief is that every photograph is a document from the moment it is taken. If it changes this is always due to the passage of time. Jose Navarro’s 2008 image of the hot air balloon can be said to have gained more credo with the events subsequently taking part in Libya but still remains a document though now “documenting” more events. But has it in fact been bestowed with any extra magical power to be worth more than in it’s original form. Perhaps financially as a news item but that is all.
    What interests me is the transparent nature of the photographic image. Having just read “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism” by Kendall L. Watson I was acutely aware of the change in what could be preserved through the transparent nature of Navarro’s image. When first taken and viewed by him it would have reminded him of an unusual event on a nice sunny day.
    When retrospectively viewed looking through the transparent veil, time had change what he could now “see”. It could be argued that it is now more of a documentary record, but I would argue that it was as much when first taken. The only difference is the passage of time. Unlike hannahfountainoca (22nd Jan 2016) I don’t think time makes the image more or less but think the image retains its original gravity no matter when viewed.
    Exploring the concept of transparency of the image a little further, I looking at an old family photograph and reflecting on the” transparency” and what I saw through it and I was really surprised at what I could see and feel through the surface image.

    A picture of a youth taken in the early 1960s when viewed by me through the transparency of the picture, and also the passage of time, allowed not only memories but feeling of that time to be recalled by me. To anyone else, what ever was imagined as to the back story would only be to them a fiction. To the young man (me if you had not guessed) a flood of emotions were recalled of a not to happy time in my young life.
    The power of the image is dependant on the subject and how empathetic to that message becomes to the viewer but when the image was taken is immaterial, it will always be a document of the day and time the shutter clicked.

  44. Rob Townsend 17 February 2016 at 12:20 pm

    The advantage of adding the 63rd comment on this post is that one can stand on the shoulders of the wise commenters that have gone before. The downside is the difficulty in finding something new to add to the discussion!

    Clarke offers a definition that framed my thinking:

    “‘Document’ means ‘evidence’, and may be traced to documentum, a medieval term for an official paper: in other words, evidence not to be questioned, a truthful account backed by the authority of the law.” (Clarke 1997: 145)

    (By the way, I don’t plan to go down the rabbit hole of defining “truth” or “facts”. I think that’s a topic for a different post on another day…)

    Jose’s original post closes with the questions: “So is it time or is it context that makes a document? Or is it something else?”


    Before looking at time and context I want to address the something else. This may seem blindingly obvious, and it has already been noted by Jim Smith, Matt James, Selina Wallace and others – the content is a primary criterion.

    To dispense with the literal answer: yes, any photograph is a document – evidence of… something. A more useful distinction to make is that of a significant or an interesting document (these are of course highly subjective adjectives) – in other words, it matters what the photograph is evidence of.

    There is something in the frame – a person, an object, an event, a circumstance, a moment, an interaction – that gets triangulated with context and time to create a document. (To highlight how the content is as crucial as the context and the time, imagine if Don McCullin took a photo six feet to the left of a shell-shocked marine in Vietnam in 1968; the time and context are there but the picture might have been of a table, or a tyre). Maybe the subject matter was implicit in Jose’s original post but I feel it needs emphasising.


    Some photographs are instantly documents. The exhibition Conflict – Time – Photography (Tate Modern 2014-15) took the intriguing curatorial step of arranging the photographs not by date taken but by elapsed time since the event in question occurred (moments later, days later, months later, years later, etc). Luc Delahaye’s Afghanistan and Iraq photographs were evidence of what had just happened, whilst Simon Norfolk’s of similar places were evidence of the aftermath of such events, and Sophie Ristelhueber’s were evidence of the consequences. Some photographers are knowingly creating ‘documents’ at the moment of pressing the shutter. So in this respect, time is an optional factor…

    On the other hand and as noted by many commenters, a photograph may not have been considered a document at the moment of being taken, but earned this mantle simply by the passage of time; any photo taken 100 years ago is inherently evidence of how a society existed beyond living memory.


    Between these two extremes of the instant document and the eventual document is what you might call the ‘sudden document’: the photograph that at some point in its existence becomes a document due to a change of circumstances: the context is what makes it so. Jose’s Gaddafi balloon falls into this category. But it isn’t simply the passage of time at work here; it’s transformed into a document by some kind of trigger event.

    Example: a teenager’s selfie posted to Facebook on a Friday night is just another photograph at first, then becomes a document when he is reported missing on the Saturday; it’s evidence of what he looked like when last seen.

    The tricky thing about context and photographs is that one needs to understand the context as a prerequisite to correctly interpreting the meaning of the image. Photographs often therefore need detailed captions in order to explain their significance. Some are easier to read than others: the McCullin Shell-shocked Marine mentioned earlier is hard to misinterpret. On the other hand, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother variously appeared with alternative captions that skewed the reading until its meaning became ‘fixed’ with its famous title (Wells 1997:43-44). You can take many iconic images and recaption them to entirely change their status as a document. Berger puts it best:

    “In the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words.” (Berger 2013: 63)

    One could argue that it is therefore the combination of the photograph and the words that constitutes the document; the photograph in isolation is incomplete.


    Previous commenter Jane articulated my thoughts very well with the phrase “every photograph has the potential to be a document“. Content and context are the two key drivers that contribute to a photograph being a (significant, interesting) document, with time being an optional third. As the content within the frame is (usually) visually simple enough to ‘consume’, the context (often in the form of accompanying words) becomes the crucial factor contributing to document status.

  45. Nico Engelbrecht 19 April 2016 at 11:29 pm

    What makes a document?

    Rob says that ‘any photograph is inherently a document’ and I agree with him on this. If we break it down and we remove the romance and pretence out of what the art of image making is, everyone who has a camera makes documents of events in the past. Currently we alter those moments by adding Instagram filters or Snapchat text over the top of them to make them seem better than they are. We add #discriptivehashtags to explain what our photos are supposed to mean but most likely the only reason we go to these lengths are to get more recognition from our friends/peers/fans. I think that Jose sums it up perfectly in his post where he says “So no matter how hard we try there is no guarantee that what we want to say with our pictures will be ‘heard’ by the viewer. We have no control over the cultural context our images will be shown or the cultural baggage of the viewer.” To cut out all the cultural context and baggage modern day photographers tell the viewer what the image is about, they tell the viewer what the context is and they tell the viewer what they think the viewer should think of it. All hidden in a hashtag like this

    If we look at what we have created, is a file, it’s labeled a .JPG file (most of the time) but with the amount of descriptions that we are adding to it, is it that much different to a word document? Are we now making mini powerpoint/keynote presentations every time we post an image? No longer is an image enough, we have to add text, cropping and and usually a generous helping of filters. Is that in itself not a description of a document? Lets think about it like this, if I said to a viewer that I spent 30 minutes on an slide of a presentation, I added an image which I spent some time removing unwanted elements like blemishes, I added some text and I added a description to the slide and lastly added a look to the slide by applying a cross process filter to the overall slide. I then saved the slide and posted it to instagram, is it a photo or a document? I lean towards a document.

    1. CliveW 20 April 2016 at 11:55 am

      ‘To cut out all the cultural context and baggage modern day photographers tell the viewer what the image is about, they tell the viewer what the context is and they tell the viewer what they think the viewer should think of it.’

      So we tell them, ‘As viewers we reserve the right to read your image according to our own visual lexicons; including the presentational context and the filters. As the maker your version is just one of many and is not privileged.’

      1. Nico Engelbrecht 26 April 2016 at 12:02 am


        Agree, as viewers we should always reserve the right to our own opinions, but more importantly have an opinion. With over 70 million photos shared per day on Instagram alone (2015) this filtering system might get chipped away at, through the sheer volume of data.

  46. sem1ot1c 26 April 2016 at 8:02 pm

    Ok so there are umpteen billion images posted every day….but who looks at them?

    1. Nico Engelbrecht 23 May 2016 at 11:52 pm

      @Sem1ot1c I think we all are.

      I think people are starting to treat images as disposable due to the sheer overload. Is scrolling through Instagram/Facebook timelines any different to flicking through a tabloid magazine at the hairdressers? The difference is that people spend a lot more time on social media than they do in hair dressers, meaning that they consume/see so many more images than in the past.

      Take Snapchat for example, most images or even stories exist only for a few seconds or 24 hours at most. Can you imagine explaining that to someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson? But just because an image is printed in a book, does it make it more of a document than something that has a expiry stamp on it? How long after taking images do they become irrelevant? We all have those images in our family album of an aunt or uncle that we never met. Ed Lerpiniere references this in his writeup too.

      So now that we are seeing so many more images, for shorter times, do we form an opinion on them (like when we see them in a gallery) or do we just swipe past them to the next one?

  47. Anne Bryson 30 April 2016 at 11:23 pm

    What makes a docoment?

    Having read Jose’s original article, 67 responses and numerous links I am now ready to add my thoughts to the debate about ‘What makes a document?’, although as Rob says (17 Feb 16) it is difficult to find something new to add.

    We have read various dictionary definitions using words such as record, evidence, information, proof, so if these definitions are to be believed, as RobTM says in the very first post (27 August 2011), a photograph will always be a document because it is a record of something at existed at the time the photograph was taken. Researching further at ‘documentary’, words such as fact and no fictionalisation are added, implying, for me at least, that in order to be a document, the photograph also has to be authentic, i.e. a ‘true’ record and yes, I have read the posts of Folio, Anne and Peter, (September 11) questioning whether or not facts are really true. So that brings into question the images such as Felice Beato’s image of the massacre at Lucknow where he apparently arranged disinterred bodies in the foreground before taking his picture to stress the scale of the massacre http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/beato/lucknow.html

    The image of the wolf jumping over a fence, posted by Jose , (27August 201) interested me. Disqualified, as it did not meet the strict criteria for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition because the wolf was deemed to have been trained and thus not exhibiting ‘wild’ qualities. Nonetheless, the photograph does record wolf jumping over the fence so is this still a document?

    So as Jose asks, is it time, context, or something else that makes a document?

    At the risk of being slated for my apparent lack of sensitivity and awareness of world affairs, I have to confess that when I first saw Jose’s image of the Gaddaffi balloon my initial reaction was that as a regular visitor to the Bristol Balloon Fiesta, I could have taken that photograph. It struck a chord with me because I know the event well and have many similar images taken over the years, thankfully mine are just records of the balloons that interested me at the time without history adding the sinister meaning it has to Jose’s image. In this case, it was a combination of the passage of time, what happened in the intervening years and my familiarity with the event at which the photograph was taken that made this image a document for me. As Jim says (29 July 2013) …’it is the perspective and interest of the viewer, i.e. the personal significance of the photograph’ that causes photograph to become a document.

    This reminds me of a photograph given to me by my uncle when he learned that I was researching our family history. He knew nothing about the picture but thought it might be of interest to me because it was amongst my grandmother’s things. The photograph was of a man and woman standing outside a newsagents shop with the name T Whitton, Stationers above the door. I had not come across anyone of that name and there was no information with the photograph but as I was to discover, there were plenty of clues in the picture itself.

    Closer inspection revealed that one of the posters on the window was for the Dundee Advertiser, a local newspaper published between 1850 and 1899. Another was for a performance by Dan Leno, a music hall artist popular in the 1880’s and 1890’s. I knew that my grandmother’s father’s family had been weaver’s in Dundee and when I looked further into this I discovered that an aunt of my grandmother, who worked as a weaver, had married a Thomas Whitton, a supervisor in the mill where she worked in 1884. It seems that Thomas had inherited the stationers when one of his older brothers died.

    So here is an old photograph which initially meant nothing to me but why would my grandmother keep it if it hadn’t had some significance for her? It was certainly a record of something, a man and woman standing outside a shop, but it wasn’t until I was able to pick away some of the layers that the context or meaning was revealed.

    Ed’s post (21 September 2015) intrigued me when he questioned whether or not photographs taken by accident are documents, those images which are out of focus or badly composed. Maybe they record our skill level at that time and serve as a good source of learning to show how far we have progressed. They are unlikely to be of interest to anyone other than ourselves though so for me, that ‘something else’ has to be as Jim said, the personal perspective of the viewer.

  48. Pingback: Exercise: What makes a document | Anne's 'Documentary' Learning Log

  49. Malc 5 July 2016 at 2:45 am

    It’s difficult to add to the commentary here without repeating many of the views and quotes, so I find it more useful for me to write this from personal perspective as it helps me better understand my own beliefs/biases.

    A photograph is a document; it contains information about a physical object(s). An object which existed at a certain point in time and space, and therefore by definition is a historical document, no matter how recent, it represents something that has happened. This document may, or may not take on more important historical significance as more time passes, this importance is driven by what is (or maybe what isn’t) contained within the frame of the image.

    The contextual detail of when, where, what and why gives us the circumstances or events that form the environment within which something existed or took place, information that we would otherwise not have known (maybe). This information assists our understanding (and feeds the human desire to pigeon whole data points); however it does not make the image any more or less valid as a document in its own right.

    Taking the second picture of the soldier and priest as an example, before reading the commentary I had assumed it was a soldier and a priest posing for a snapshot in front of a (church) wall in the early-mid 20th century, during a time of conflict. The clothing, monochrome and aging of the print (let’s leave manipulation aside for now) all helped with these assumptions.

    Reading Jose’s account of the family photo adds the interest of a human story associated with the image, but the information contained within the photograph (visual document) gave me a lot to begin with.

  50. ChrisC 26 July 2016 at 11:56 am

    I believe all photographs qualify as documents, in that they are, in John Berger’s words – ‘a trace naturally left by something that has passed’. It is time and context that gives value to a photographic document. A photograph of a person standing in front of a plain wall might have little value to the world at large, but to that person’s mother would be very precious. The meaning and importance of an image can change over time, when further events happen or come to light, as happened with Jose’s balloon image.

    I believe hindsight can also affect the meaning of an image.A group photograph of Jimmy saville with a group of schoolchildren might have made a mildly interesting tabloid picture at the time, but now, with hindsight, such images have a dark, sinister overtone. People’s perception of an image has changed with new knowledge of the situation that was ongoing at the time, even though the image itself hasn’t changed. What was happening at the time has not changed either, it’s just that we now know about it, which shows such images in a different light.

    How much we know of the circumstances of an image dictates to a large extent how useful it is as a document. A photograph can be attractive to look at, even when we don’t know what it is we are looking at, however its usefulness as a document is impeded when supporting information (in the form of text, or additional images) is limited. Having no prior knowledge of Jose’s photograph in Spain, I simply see two figures standing in front of a wall. The one on the left is evidently military, but I wouldn’t neccessarily have guessed the one on the right is a religious figure, as the style of dress is unfamiliar to me. It is difficult to see with such a small image, but it appears that the military figure is smiling, and the religious figure is not. Is this significant? I enjoyed John Berger’s example in his esssay ‘Appearances’ of the image of the smiling man and the horse. He recognises that with no contextual information, the viewer is forced to conjure their own interpretation of the scene. Would I look at Jose’s image and see two friends? or would I see the man on the right fearful of his immediate future, and the man on the left relishing the thought of executing his prisoner?

    Authenticity is another interesting facet to this debate. In Robert Fenton’s famous photograph ‘The Shadow of the Valley of Death’, he had moved the cannonballs onto the road from elsewhere, presumably to dramatise the image. It is a staged photograph, however I believe that this doesn’t make it less of a document, but that its documentary focus has shifted. The image still records a scene where fighting took place (but not as it turns out where the charge of the light brigade happened), and it still records the actual cannonballs used in the battle. Bearing these facts in mind, the photograph is a document. It is however documenting a slice of time not from the original battle, but from from the moment the image was being made. In effect I would treat it similar to an image taken of a battle re-enactment. On the sliding scale of value however, Fenton’s would register more valuable due to its proximity time-wise to the actual event.

    To sum up my thoughts of ‘what makes a document?’ – A photograph becomes a document the moment the shutter is pressed, but its documentary value is based on a flexible, fluid, sliding scale, which is influenced by context and time.

  51. Leonie Broekstra 29 August 2016 at 1:20 pm

    Phew, so many replies and ideas to ponder on! I read this article, http://www.columbia.edu/itc/film/gaines/documentary_tradition/Eitzen.pdf, that questions what makes a documentary and concludes that the question should be ‘when is a documentary?’ Jose’s example of his family photo gaining different meanings when looked at in other contexts shows that much depends the preconceived ideas or background information the viewer has in order to interpret it as a document with documentary value. I find that when I consider the term documentary, I automatically question context and depiction of reality and get stranded in the post modern idea that everybody interprets images in their own way, and that even when a document seems to be an objective representation of reality, we’re still dealing with a ‘creative treatment of actuality’ (Grierson).

    However, I don’t think that this dismisses documentary photography as a valuable genre. I read Susie Linfield’s interview and it was good to learn about her positive approach. Documentary photography is essential in informing others about life elsewhere and in different times in order to sustain and build mutual empathy and understanding.

  52. Miriam Comber 6 September 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Suppose we agree, as most contributors seem to, starting from Rob TM’s first comment, that a photograph is a document in the sense that it records something. As with other documents, it can be faked, what it records may not represent the larger world and there may be multiple interpretations of what the photograph shows and, as John and others say, its meaning may change over time.

    What makes a photograph a type of document is the fact that it records. If we want the document to be something more, such as evidence, or as Anned puts it, something I can ‘produce as a document’, then we need something more: proof, witnesses, legal endorsement. If we want to win the World Press Photo competition we would need to provide a RAW file to show the image has not been manipulated. If a photograph is to be entered as evidence in court, here must be an evidence trail.

    I think that the view that we need something more than the photograph for it to be a document, expressed by curriehannah, Pdog 19 and Sarah G among others is really viewing a document as something can be used as evidence or is historically significant. A counter view is that my shopping list is a document, with or without any cultural significance.
    For all their potential for ambiguity, photographs undoubtedly record. The front cover of The Cruel Radiance (Linfield, 2010) shows a photograph of a girl. We know that she was killed by the Khmer Rouge, because they photographed people before they were executed. We know nothing else, but we have this record of a child who was executed.
    “…for all their flaws, photographs still speak to us…. They can deceive, mislead and obfuscate, but they also record the visible world.” Linfield 2011.

    The most recent issue of BJP (Sept 2016) focuses on refugees and many images included are in the photojournalist tradition. Two sets of images that are not stand out for me. Dario Mitidieri’s Empty Chairs documents the lost family members of refugees. Each image is of a family, with empty chairs representing family members who have died in the Syrian war. Patrick Willocq’s campaign for Save the Children shows children in playful scenes. These images were developed collaboratively with children in refugee camps to make images that show their hopes and fears. Neither of these actually records an event, but they use photographs to represent events that have not or cannot be recorded directly. I think this makes them documents.

    What else might be a document? Indigenous Australian “country” art records dream journeys. Document or not? Is a memorial quilt, where every square represents a person, a document?
    Here’s another thing that might be a document – the record of an online conversation followed by the individual exercises. This tells us some factual things – the number of Documentary students and the order in which they have come to this exercise. But it also has more meaning to offer: we can see the difference between a group of people building on each others’ ideas collaboratively, followed by the more formal style of those of us posting into the void left by the conversation. We see time passing; in the dates of posts, in links that are broken and, of course, in knowing that those who started the conversion have now left it behind and gone on to better things. I have imagined a time in the future when some new student will carefully read the 373 posts (and all the links).
    To the next student, my apologies, I thought it would be shorter.

    British Journal of Photography, Issues 7851 September 2016. London: Aptitude Media
    Linfield, S. (2010) The cruel radiance: Photography and political violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

  53. Gerard Hilderly 14 September 2016 at 3:35 pm

    The use of the analogy of Syrian refugee photography with regards to answering the question ‘what makes a document’ is a useful reminder of context. The photographer presumably had a clear understanding of what he was trying to capture and attempts to use the subjects experiences into his photography. Because of the time frame of the events we can have some fairly accurate understanding of the photographers intentions to produce some form of document and context.

    Time on he other hand has an unintentional way of clouding the context of a photograph which gives the image such as the Priest and the Soldier, a more ambiguous flavour.

    I personally find myself encapsulated by a photograph who’s documentary sub text has been slightly eroded by time. I agree that a document can be seen as a recording of visual reality for the purpose of information and understanding. However, I find this leaves very little room for the medium of time or the unintentional, both of which can occur in reality photography.

    I have recently read a passage from Lisa Wells combination of photographic writers (The Reader) and in her forward she refers to the significance of everything within the frame, especially that which has escaped the control of the photographer. With this in mind I find the photograph of the Priest and the Soldier highly significant in terms of making a document as it also gives an insight to the photographers circumstances at the time. Intentional or not.

    The Gaddafi balloon highlights the rationale of subjects that commence as unintentional and transform into a new context. The previous blogger who wrote that time changes context makes an accurate assumption in my mind as the image would have been taken (as in the words of the photographer) to make good conversation at the dinner table. I would propose that a similar image of any dictator would be likely to change its context at some point given the nature of a dictator. The photographers notes that Gaddafi is looking up to God I find more of a leap in context as the photograph reads more about the dictators own image of himself rather than any context the photographer has brought into the frame. Saying that, it is definitely a good talking point and the nature of the photograph makes a good document given the history of events.

  54. Jan Fairburn 16 October 2016 at 8:49 pm

    My thoughts in responding to the Documentary Exercise

    In English literacy when you get an exam question you are often asked to refer to the context of the novel or poem within your response. This way you show a greater understanding of what you have read. Why was it written, who was it written for, who wrote it, what was their background or agenda for writing it, when was it written, what historical events were happening at the time to influence the writer? How and why was it published? What vocabulary did they chose, what language devices, how effective were these and what was the effect on the reader?

    You have to be able to answer all of these to demonstrate complete understanding of the text. Great when you have all that information to hand and just have to make learn it. However, if you just “read” a novel without knowing any or all of the above does it make it any less of a novel? Do you get any less enjoyment out of it? Just as listening to a piece of music can make you feel happy or scared without knowing it was written in a major or minor key

    The same can be said of a photograph; to truly have full understanding you need to know the context in which it was taken etc, but there maybe difficulty in obtaining all of the knowledge that you can apply in literature, as you may not always know the full history or histories behind it.But does this make it any less a document? Therefore I stand by the belief that any photograph is a document. If that document gains more significance or importance due to context and possibly time remains to be seen. I don’t think time has to pass for a photograph to have historical importance or gain the label historical document. The image of Neil Armstrong on the moon was historically important the moment it was taken as was Tank Man by Jeff Widener. The first digital photograph ever taken (whenever that was) had historical importance. Historical definition being of or concerning history.

    Having read the entire post and all the responses I still stand by what I have written above and the general consensus on the forum is that a photograph is a document, stat.

    On my blog I have responded more fully to some of the posts on here and if you wish to have a read here is a link


  55. Johnathan Hall 10 November 2016 at 9:49 pm

    What makes A document?

    My answer, after reading through (all!) the replies and the post to What makes a document? is that a document is a piece (or series) of media from which the viewer can infer an actual event took place, however trivial this event may seem. The more context this piece of media has, the more a document it becomes. I don’t believe time and context are mutually exclusive as Stan Dickinson points out in the third reply. Photographs can be ambiguous and when there are several potential contexts for the photograph, complications arise about what the photograph is documenting. This usually happens over time, like with both of Jose’s examples.

    You could say every photograph is a document (because a photograph is indexical to the world around us and so some sort of event took place).
    This statement has been nicely summed up by others including Selina Wallace’s post conclusion with: ‘a photograph is an imprint of reality, and thus gives information about reality, and for this reason alone, should qualify it the definition of a document’ and John Walker’s post conclusion: ’[the image] will always be a document of the day and time the shutter clicked’.

    However, some photographs in my eyes are more of a document than others. This could be because of the content of the photograph, how much time has passed since it was produced as well as forms of context like supporting media for the document being apparent which aid the photograph and whether it appears in a series of photographs.

  56. Bryn Davies 24 November 2016 at 6:55 pm

    After reading first the article, and then the increasing comments list (good luck to those reading this a few years from now and sieving the content out). Personally I find the exercise here a two pointed comment.

    1. In response to Jose’s original text.
    In reading the photograph of Gaddafi’s balloon, you could say it is in fact a digest on current affairs terms, especially if it was circulated in the time it was taken. As Jose states it was in real time merely anecdotal. Later on its place sits amongst Gadaffi’s contemporary history, his later years events and action. One could philosophise on the importance of the event in isolation or of the symbolic language that could be analysed further.
    It makes me consider to political documents who’s time and context have been used for different reasons. Alberto Korda’s iconic image of Che Guevara was actually taken whilst Korda was documenting a memorial service for the Cuban government. I’m sure Korda never had the belief his image taken that day would be regarded as the most iconic of the 20th century, nor anticipate its serialisation as a symbol for revolutions, counter culture, memorabilia and repeated use of commercial goods. Conversely Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Jim Rosenthal is an image both celebrated and speculated greatly. The image is a Pulitzer winner and from the moment it was sent to the PA for publication, referred to as one for history. Yet Rosenthal’s comments created confusion on whether the image was staged, and although his account has been verified, he found himself continually addressed get the context in which it was taken.

    2. Through the various comments and threads I was drawn to Peter Havelands comment on scientific theories. Scientists also set out to disprove theories in presenting their own. Thinking about John Nash’s Game theorem which has been adopted for economics. The question here is what is the authoritative document of the day. And is there such evidence to prove and disprove its authenticity. As theories are used in time and context so are documents. To turn this all on its head, we could argue that the documents I have viewed and read to make this assertion are also only relative to the current time and context. And they are biased to our general point of view?

  57. Nathan Adams 20 December 2016 at 8:08 pm

    A thought provoking article with excellent responses… all 78 of them. For me a photograph is always a document, but as pointed out its relevance changes over time. The image of Jose’s grandfather is a remarkable one, the contrast of military and religion question the viewer immediately as to what could possibly be going on? For me it has an air of peace and reconciliation but perhaps that is what I want to believe.

    Many responses are triggered around time and context and the two initial examples given will continue to change over time. Recently Fidel Castro passed away, you only have to look how his images have been portrayed overtime to see how their relevance has changed. This is what makes documentary so fascinating in that we do not know what today’s images will reveal or be used for in years to come. In many cases evidence of our failings.

    For example images of the unsinkable Titanic, which in themselves are rare, were taken as a record of its magnificence, yet in time they are used as a record of its astonishing failure. Images of the first atomic bombs being dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War may have had the intention of demonstrating military supremacy, or recording the event as a ‘first’. Now they serve us well detailing the unyielding horror and trauma inflicted by so many as a stark reminder of man’s brutal potential.

    Often we record not knowing the relevance of the moment, perhaps every image has a future secret to reveal?

  58. Veronica M Worrall 26 January 2017 at 4:17 pm

    As reader of all responses and 79th contributor and I start by saying how a blog such as this does deepen one’s own reflections. Thank you all!!!

    What makes a document?

    I have considered how much does time and context effect the nature of a photograph? Does it become a document immediately it has been taken or once it has the added-value of being part of the past. …but how much past? The word document, itself, can have a different interpretation depending on an individual’s experience, knowledge, language or culture. These are just a few of the conundrums.

    Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucinda discusses the linguistic message within photographs as a text. A text which has a meaning and as such is a document. Every photograph has some meaning, if only a record of a bloom in the garden. More complex pictures take longer to decipher and may hold deeper messages to an informed viewer. This may or may not be the original intended message and this is where time can also distort, magnify or contradict the initial intention. Barthes even considers (2000 p96) that this ageing can be a punctum.

    The background to the photograph and the background of the viewer and the sharing of this context is most likely to add greater significance to an image; as shown by Jose sharing his grandfather’s story. The photograph can become a more emotional or intellectual or scientific or historic document but remains as it was when first recorded, a document of a moment.

    These documents in time can become part of a shared social history and often find their way into museums especially when circumstances add a uniqueness to the image. Photographs sit alongside museum artefacts, old books and paintings as 19th, 20th and 21st century documents. They are a window into the past – a transparent window as discussed previously in the course study of Andre Bezin’s work. Similarly, at a personal level, as in Jose Navarro’s picture of his grandfather the vintage photograph builds up significance and importance to a family history as each new generation look to find their own identity.

    In this blog, Anned Aug 2011 discussed having the background to a photograph made it more reliable as a document by giving the document an anchor. This later is described by Rob Tm Aug 2011 as its authenticity but he acknowledges without this the photograph is no less document. Jim July 13 picks up on ‘authenticity’ – the question of true representation versus a picture which by some method is a mis-represention. I concur the former is highly desirable but the image remains a document if taken as photograph. If time uncovers the true context, the image remains a document but with an additional significance and questioning of the author’s rationale.

    Contemporary photographs tends to be more open to interpretation by the viewer and consequently more ambiguous. Susan Bright discusses this as ‘their strength rather than an authorial voice dictating meaning’ (2011. p159) For me any ambiguity of understanding is the magic of photography and can add depth to its documentary property.

    At this stage my only remaining question about the documentary nature of photography is raised when we consider screen images and particularly digital manipulation to include files not taken by a camera. The creative digital photographic documentary line is becoming very blurred. I consider a photographic document can become art but I would need evidence of photographic authenticity of digitally composed art to call it a document.

    Barthes R (2000) Camera Lucida London. Vintage

    Bright S (2011) Art Photography Now London. Thames and Hudson

  59. John Turner 24 February 2017 at 8:22 pm

    What Makes a Document?

    In many regards I hold a belief that all Photographs are Documents, they capture a moment in time, and everything in the frame is recorded, the subject, the background the lighting is all captured either as a chemical reaction or a digital file.

    But this article and the comments made have raised some interesting points. Is it time and context that makes an image a document? I wouldn’t agree with it being time, as I would that Oli Scarf’s photo of the stabber running away would have become an important document from the moment it was viewable. First of all it acts a way of identifying the individuals involved, it tells us part of the story that happened, and it is also a statement on society. If we were to same that an image becomes a document after a certain amount of time, then what is the amount of time that should pass? Should this be standardised across images and how do we decide the criteria.

    Context is in many ways hugely important, but has the potential to mislead as much as it can inform. An image can be a document by being taken at a certain time or place and then it can give us a context of a certain situation. Looking at Oli Scarf’s image, the story of the stabbing would have probably existed anyway, but the actions of the by stand trying to trip perpetrator and the hesitation of the Police may fall more into the category of urban myths. However, the story behind the image gives us the context and we know that the perpetrator is running away after stabbing someone trying to break up the fight, without that back story one could also read the picture as the person we know as the perpetrator actually fleeing in fear of his life after breaking up a fight with the crowd turning on him, this is obviously not the case, but what if we were given the wrong context, told that was the case and that changed how we read the picture?

    The BBC News article on the disqualification of Jose Luis Rodriguez’s image of a Wold made me think back to the winner of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait prize in 2008. Lottie Davies’ Quints was the winner that year, but it has always sat uneasily with me. What is a Portrait, we could well open this ‘What Is’ argument very wide indeed, but if we say for the sake of argue that a Portrait is a Document of an Individual. The issue for me was that Lottie Davies’s photo was not a portrait. In the series Davies had recreated Dreams and Nightmares using a Model. Now the Model had no connection to the scene she was in, and played a part, and so for me I was told nothing about the sitter, and while a Portrait can be staged, this was ultimately a staged imaged based on someone’s memory of a Dream. What I find interesting is that in one competition a staged image was deemed to be an acceptable entry, but Jose Luis Rodriguez’s image was not. From this however we can’t even really say that a documentary photography is something staged or un-staged, as in different situation both of the images have merit, and indeed, Jose Luis Rodriguez’s image is now a document in the argument of staged images.

    Beyond on if an image is staged, could we put forward an argument that an image with the minimum post-production so that it is viewable is acceptable, but once it has been edited in a lab or on a computer that then it loses it’s merit? However, again a doctored imaged can become a document on the subject of doctoring. Through the links in the article and comments we also have the argument of the work of Charley Murrell, but I’ll shall leave comment on this for now as I would like to explore her work in another blog post.

    In Behind The Image, Anna Fox and Natasha Capuana talk about the need for planning, so does planning create a documentary image? It can certainly give you guidelines, but even then can you ever know what you are going to capture when you the release the shutter. Could Oli Scarf have planned for the stabbing to occur and as such have a documentary image of it?

    Finally we have the eye of the viewer. I found it interesting that when Oli Scarf’s image was mentioned, that someone said they would give an image of the individual any time. This is a very justifiable human response, but it adds another layer of what we deem to add to our acceptance of an image. While try there may be things like Crime Scene photography which few of us could stomach, but there is also an emotional response to an image which may effect how effective we find it in whatever the the image is trying to be or what we want from the the images when we look at it.

    For me ultimately what makes an image a document is dependant on what the viewer is looking to the image for. For someone studying Fashion, an Issue of Vogue Magazine will be a document, but to the same individual Jose Luis Rodriguez’s disqualified image of the wolf jumping the fence is merely an interesting photo, if even that. Where as to me, Jose Luis Rodriguez’s image has been a talking point in an Exercise for a degree course and I haven’t picked up a copy of Vogue today.

    Fox, Anna & Caruana, Natasha. (2012) Behind The Image, Unknown Edition, Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA







  60. Dorota Kazmierak 3 March 2017 at 9:15 pm

    In the post Jose asks: What makes a document? Is it a context or is it time?

    I certainly agree with previous bloggers who said that it depends on interpretation of the term document.

    If I assume that document is a photographic record of an era, surly, every photograph that sits in the album is a document, because it records the past.

    If I define a document as a presented representation of thoughts it needs to be introduced in a context. Without the context the photograph will not fulfil the role of document. It will not provide relevant information to the public.

    Professor Tim May in his book titled: ‘Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process’ says that document can’t be read in detached manner. Context is fundamental to understanding the meaning contained within documents.

    Without the context photographs can’t be fully understood. They can’t provide us with information about exact time and location. Without the description or knowledge we might find alternative meanings but we won’t be able to get the objective form of message.

    May, T. (2001) Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process, Ch. 8 ‘Documentary Research’.

    Edwards, S. (2006) The Making of English Photography: Allegories. 1st Edition. Penn State University Press

  61. Michael Millmore 23 May 2017 at 9:30 am

    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.

  62. Annie Ozsarac 16 June 2017 at 7:40 am

    From how I see it all photography is a document. It records the way something looked and it is a much better record than that of a painting or a sketch. For me the question is the truth in the document or photograph. When we hear documentary we think of maybe something that is telling something from an objective point of view however, this is nearly impossible. When all of the elements of picture making are considered (angles, POV, cropping, post-production, type of lens, etc.) it is not possible to say that any photograph 100% documents the truth of that live experience. Then when you add human perception and interpretation on to it, it creates even further layers of meaning. As Atwood said, ‘Context is all’ and I think this is also important when viewing photographs and seeing them as documents. The meaning of an image will inevitably change with time as things change, people move on or die, political changes, etc. Essentially, there is no truth in anything because context is always important and human perception will never allow there to be one meaning in anything.

  63. Chris Woolgar 3 July 2017 at 11:15 pm

    My opening contention is that any photograph can be considered a document. Both examples from Jose in his post are documents, and I would suggest they are documents irrespective of context. The first of Gaddafi’s balloon was a document when the photograph was taken and Gaddafi was still alive and (presumably) still bent on conquering Africa. At it’s very lowest level, it is a document of his balloon. Then, the balloon could be considered symbolic of his rise, of his aspirations. Another contributor to the discussion thought it might be symbolic of his hot air. After his demise, its presence could be considered with a note of irony but it remained its symbology, albeit now in a historical context.

    The other example is a photograph of the soldier and the priest, or the grandfather and the priest. Either way, and again regardless of context, they are documents but again the meaning will change with context.

    Context can mean many different things. We are looking at both pictures as students of photography in the warmth and comfort of a 21st century western environment. We are far removed from Gaddafi and his regime, from the Spanish civil war (of which my knowledge is scant) and equally removed from a tutor’s personal photo album. Someone who had faced oppression under Gaddafi or Franco would bring a quite different reading.

    To say that any photograph can be a document might sound somewhat glib but of course this excludes any value judgements on their effectiveness as a document. So perhaps the question posed by Jose, “So is it time or is it context that makes a document?” should be rephrased; “How does time and context affect a photograph’s documentary value?”

  64. Rob C 5 July 2017 at 8:53 am

    What makes a document?- Exercise

    Having read through the original by Jose and the long list of comments, it is as others in the later comments have stated, difficult to add anything fresh to the argument or debate. I agree as does it seems many other commentators, with the opening statement of the first post by RobTM that any picture taken of something that exists is inherently a document. What is different though about each image is the value or importance of each image as a document and this is where time and context come into the equation.

    In terms of context a lot depends on the viewers viewpoint and knowledge, without some form of anchor or text to explain then the importance of some images will be lost. There is also the outlook and emotional viewpoint of the viewer to take into account. Looking at the image of the priest and soldier would bring out different reactions depending on the person looking at it’s experience and viewpoint of the situation and to some degree Jose is speculating as to the meaning of the image and adding his own emotional input about the potential meanings of the white wall etc… This is where I feel there does need to be some kind of anchor to the image to give it more understanding and importance in explaining the context. In the John Berger appearances PDF he states “The Photograph offers irrefutable evidence that this man, this horse and this bridle existed. Yet it tells us nothing of their significance”. This I feel explains the importance of some form of explanation from the photographer, explaining the context of the image to a certain degree, to bring more value to the image interns of it being a documentary photograph.

    Time can be important in increasing the value of an image as a document, though I don’t think it has any strict rules as such. As shown with the image of the stabbing at the Notting Hill carnival. A recently shot image can be just as important in documenting an event, as an image documenting something from many years gone past.

  65. Rob C 5 July 2017 at 9:01 am

    What makes a document?- Exercise

    Having read through the original by Jose and the long list of comments, it is as others in the later comments have stated, difficult to add anything fresh to the argument or debate. I agree as does it seems many other commentators, with the opening statement of the first post by RobTM that any picture taken of something that exists is inherently a document. What is different though about each image is the value or importance of each image as a document and this is where time and context come into the equation.

    In terms of context a lot depends on the viewers viewpoint and knowledge, without some form of anchor or text to explain then the importance of some images will be lost. There is also the outlook and emotional viewpoint of the viewer to take into account. Looking at the image of the priest and soldier would bring out different reactions depending on the person looking at it’s experience and viewpoint of the situation and to some degree Jose is speculating as to the meaning of the image and adding his own emotional input about the potential meanings of the white wall etc… This is where I feel there does need to be some kind of anchor to the image to give it more understanding and importance in explaining the context. In the John Berger appearances PDF he states “The Photograph offers irrefutable evidence that this man, this horse and this bridle existed. Yet it tells us nothing of their significance”. This I feel explains the importance of some form of explanation from the photographer, explaining the context of the image to a certain degree, to bring more value to the image interns of it being a documentary photograph.

    Time can be important in increasing the value of an image as a document, though I don’t think it has any strict rules as such. As shown with the image of the stabbing at the Notting Hill carnival. A recently shot image can be just as important in documenting an event, as an image documenting something from many years gone past.

    To sum up my own opinion on what makes a document. I believe every image taken of something that exists is a document, how important or interesting it is as a document, depends on context and time, but it is very ambiguous and will depend on what the photographer is trying to put across and if they have done anything to explain their intentions for the image in any way and also on the viewpoint and understanding of the viewer.

  66. David Fletcher 5 September 2017 at 11:01 pm

    The first thing to say about this blog entry is that it is now extremely long, the original entry having been made in August 2011, six years ago. There are 87 comments at the time of writing. While it is always possible to make a personal comment, I feel that the purpose of the original post to stimulate a debate has been somewhat diluted by the sheer quantity of words written since (over 24,000 words). That is not to deny that every contribution constitutes a valid point of view, but rather to assert that beyond a certain point the blog becomes a list of points of view rather than a debate.

    It seems to me that there are in fact two questions here: what is a document; and when is a photograph a document. The topic of the exercise is, strictly speaking, the first point: what makes an object, or an artefact, a document. The second question is implied because this is a course on photography.

    The course notes themselves make some assertions: firstly that a photograph which is a document is a ‘documentary photograph’; secondly that all photographs are potentially documents; thirdly, related to the second point, that time can ‘confer on photographs the character of documents’.

    I think that there is a conflation here of document and documentary which is not valid. An application for a bank account is a document, but it is not documentary in the sense intended by John Grierson. A documentary requires an author: the material must be real rather than invented but the maker’s voice is essential to interpreting and presenting it. A documentary must have a point of view, as opposed to news coverage which is supposed to be objective.

    Sticking strictly to the question of ‘What makes a document?’ it is difficult to argue against the view of many on the blog that all photographs are documents, in that they are by definition a record of something. This is a slightly slippery slope, leading to the argument that even a photograph which portrays a fictional or artificial scene is a document in that it documents what was created. But these photographs are certainly not documentary, because a crucial aspect of that genre is that it is non-fictional. Hence Jeff Wall’s description of of his work as ‘near-documentary’.

    The discussion on the blog rapidly broadens to include the issues of the reliability of a document and the manipulation of images, the suggestion being that veracity is an essential property of a document. But is a photograph less reliable than any other document? Any document can manipulated or faked – this is not a property unique to photographs.

    There is a – in my view – digression in the blog into the nature of facts and the scientific method versus a view of the world based on feelings: toothache versus heartache. The scientific method seeks to explain and rationalise the world around us, but does not attempt to explain how we feel about ourselves and our surroundings. A document can capture feelings as well as facts, lies as well as truths.

    If we do not understand a photograph, does that mean it is not a document? Some contributors argue that a photograph is not a document without context. But consider a document written in a foreign language. The reader might not understand the content, but does that mean it is not a document? A photograph has its own language, which we may not understand without additional context. This might be provided by textual information or by further photographs, but even without this context a photograph may constitute a valid document.

    There seems to be some confusion about whether it is a required property of a document that it tells a story. John Berger in “Another Way of Telling is mistakenly quoted in support of this argument, but Berger’s point is about the narrative property of a photograph compared to text, not about the nature of a document.

    A documentary is not simply a sequence of documents: it is a point of view supported by selected documents. The impact of time is to take away the original purpose of the photograph and to allow the viewer to regard it more objectively. The context in which it viewed – a book, an advertisement or a gallery wall – affects the way it is interpreted but not the degree to which it is a factual representation of objects and events. All photographs are in a sense documents, but not all are documentary.

  67. Barry Senior 7 September 2017 at 8:34 pm

    We start off by taking a picture for whatever reason, we could like the look of a billboard that is weathering so much that its original appearance has changed. We take a picture we now have a record of that billboard we like it so much that we print and frame it, but first, we change the colours in PS and make it our own.
    Barry Senior

    Is this a document of the original billboard, no it’s not it is now art the representation of the original document has been lost? If we keep an original copy, then this is a record documenting the starting point of the finished product. That’s not to say the original image was not art in its own right.

    You have only to look at the old Marlborough bill boards to realise that It is the art that is used to attract the attention of the public, but it is the context that the art is used that changes it meaning. A branch is a branch until you hit someone over the head now the branch is also a weapon it has become something else, it’s the same with an image it is the context that it is used in at the time that determines what it is.

  68. Anna Sellen 5 November 2017 at 7:15 pm

    Dear all, what a treat to find so many different opinions and such a variety of answers here! This blog certainly makes an interesting read although I wondered if many of the original contributors have revisited it lately and what they would have said now. I also wondered if there should be a special prize for making the 90th comment. 🙂 It feels quite a milestone…

    After reading all the previous contributions I started wondering if the original question was the photography’s equivalent of “Shrödinger’s cat” dilemma. What if the cat in the box is simultaneously alive and dead? What if the point of this conversation is not to provide a definite answer but to realise that there is an infinite spectrum of answers and possibilities?

    We live in the constantly changing world where nothing remains static. In this world, the meanings we assign to the terms such as ‘photography’, ‘documentary’ and ‘document’ are under continuous review. Just think how the topic of this blog could have been approached and answered some fifty or one hundred years ago.
    There were times when photography was widely regarded as an objective medium. It wasn’t that long ago that my compatriot Alexander Rodchenko coined the term ‘factography’ to celebrate the ‘artless’ nature of photography. Now it would be unthinkable to treat the photographic cameras simply as copying devices, to deny the subjective, creative elements of the photographic process, or to disregard the input of the creators, editors and publishers.

    Similarly, as VesaK pointed out earlier in this blog, ‘document’ isn’t a static definition, its meaning has been evolving and the contemporary understanding of what makes a document is progressively much more inclusive. M. Buckland in his article ‘Documentality beyond documents’ made an interesting summary of how our thinking on what constitutes a document has widened from the narrowly defined conventional view (“that something made intentionally as a document is a document”) to the ‘instrumental view (“that almost anything can be made to serve as a document, as evidence or as a proof”) and, more recently, to the semiotic view (“that anything could be considered as a document if it is regarded as evidence of something regardless of what the creator has intended”). The spectrum of opinions represented in this blogstream is a perfect example and manifestation of this development.

    In the context of this discussion, it is interesting to note that there are many photographers and artists who used their work to actively explore and question the relationship between a photographic image and the concepts of document, evidence and truth. One of the classic examples is Mike Manual & Larry Sultan’s ‘Evidence’ series created in 1970s. The images are strong, bold and speak for themselves. Another, more recent example that comes to mind is Thomas Ruff’s Portraits series. His large-scale ‘passport-style’ portraits provide extraordinary details of the facial features of his sitters, however the lack of factual information on who these sitters are and the lack of emotional content that could be gathered from the images themselves makes quite an uncomfortable viewing experience. Looking at these portraits made me aware of how hard it could be to resist assigning meanings, making judgements and creating interpretations.
    This realisation leads me straight to the issues of context and authorship – the topics, which featured in this blog conversation already.
    Context is an interesting concept in relation to this topic. Has anyone noticed that there is no mention of ‘photography’ in the title of this blog ‘What makes a document?’ Yet, we all discuss the question in the context of photography. Perhaps this clue in the title tells us just how easily the context and storylines could be reinvented, presumed or re-written. It does not matter how detailed your descriptions and good your captions, other people may see your work differently. It all points to the simple truth that we as authors have limited control over our work.
    The issue of authorship is important in this context and it has been discussed by previous bloggers. How much power does the author have over the life of their creation, i.e. over the way their work is perceived, used, displayed and reproduced? From the semiotic point of view, any photograph could be considered as an evidence of something regardless of whether that was the author’s original intention. RobTM pointed out earlier in this blog that “whilst a picture paints a thousand words, it’s a different set of words for every viewer.” The examples given in the earlier blogposts demonstrate perfectly that a single image could ‘evidence’ multiple truths and could mean different things to different people.
    It seems there is enough proof that we as the authors of photographic work have limited power. We simply can not exercise the full control over our published work.
    In his article ‘Thinking Photography’, Alex Schneideman described photography as “a storytelling medium that intersects occasionally with the truth.” Just like this blog discussion, it is a good reminder of the strengths and the weaknesses of the genre, of its power and limitations that we all need to consider and be aware of every time we press the shutter button.

    1. Alan D Horn 23 January 2018 at 3:21 pm

      I will keep my comments brief as this article has been done to death.
      I think that the general consensus is that a photograph is a document whether in hard or digital state. It is as much a documentary as anyone wants is to be or interprets it to be.
      My exercise in answer to this paper is located as follows

      Alan D Horn 515733
      Photography 2 Documentary
      Exercise What makes a document?

      Reading the original paper by Jose made me look through some of the really old family images that I have inherited over the years and one in particular of my paternal grandmother. I have been aware of this image most of my life and recognise my grandmother and where she is standing- which is in the garden of the house I grew up in for the first 9 years of my life.
      How do I qualify the image as a document which I think it is?
      What is ironic about my association with this image of my grandmother is that it was taken long before I was born, probably in the 1940’s, yet I have always felt that I see her and in someway know her and not an image of her when looking at this creased old print. (Kendall Walton’s observation* comes to life!)
      If a document is “evidence” then this image serves as a record of one of my ancestors. It can be further identified as documentary evidence through the two children in the image who are likely to be (much) older cousins of mine. (Note – I am from a huge family, my mother from 14 and my father from 8 siblings and a grand total of 43 offspring from the respected marriages and to identify who they are would require some time and long memories). Nevertheless, the image does ask us who they are and why they were? Probably taken during or shortly after WW II, the question of where their father was at the time is asked. Was he away fighting?
      What we also see from the image is a woman who has had 8 children of her own and this undoubted physical effort in bearing the children and bringing them up in difficult circumstances is worn on her face.
      The image illustrates an accurate recording of the past – documentary evidence. It has an historical and emotional significance to me but it also has the ability to provide a social document of the way (relatively poor) people dressed in that era and an inkling of what a working-class family environment looked like.
      Taking the emotion from family photo archives (not easy, as we reminisce) does however allow us to document history and link us to it. Images of relations in uniform returning from or on leave from WW II, remind us that our ancestors put themselves (or more often were put) in dangerous situations that we cannot imagine.
      Wedding photos document fashion styles and return us to the day when the image was taken – often leaving us wondering why we bought that shirt or tie.

      * Page 252 para 2 “I prefer the bold formulation: the viewer of a photograph sees, literally, the scene that was photographed”.

      Kendall L. Walton Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism Critical Enquiry University of Chicago 1984
      Graham Clarke The Photograph Oxford University Press. .

  69. Iva 2 March 2018 at 8:49 pm

    After reading all comments to the original post there is nothing to add as all was discussed, mentioned and in some ways agreed or differed. Therefore, I have chosen to comment just on a few views.

    All photographs are in a sense documents, but not all are documentary.(David Fletcher Sept 2017)

    In terms of context a lot depends on the viewer’s viewpoint and knowledge, without some form of anchor or text to explain then the importance of some images will be lost. There is also the outlook and emotional viewpoint of the viewer to take into account. (Rob July 2017)

    I agree with both statements above. All photographs are documents, wherever they are personal, political or for example educational. However, not all of them will become a documentary without a background knowledge of a wider context. Different viewers with various cultural backgrounds will see and interpret a photograph in diverse ways on a different level. Thus I agree with one of a viewer (ChrisWoolgarJuly 2017) that perhaps we should rephrase the question and ask instead how does time and context affect a photograph’s documentary value. As we already established all images are some sorts of document, wherever it is for a public seeing or for just a personal use. To add a context to a photograph, background information, time and date can completely change a way we understand the image. Then seeing the same image a few years later in different set up, with a political or cultural changes, time adds value and can change a meaning and a way we perceive that particular image. I think Rob and Nathan summed it up all very nicely in their posts below.

    Previous commenter Jane articulated my thoughts very well with the phrase “every photograph has the potential to be a document“. Content and context are the two key drivers that contribute to a photograph being a (significant, interesting) document, with time being an optional third. As the content within the frame is (usually) visually simple enough to ‘consume’, the context (often in the form of accompanying words) becomes the crucial factor contributing to document status. (Rob Townsend Feb 2016)

    Nathan Adam Dec 2016 Often we record not knowing the relevance of the moment, perhaps every image has a future secret to reveal?


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