Assignment 1: Preparation – being there

This post isn’t quite a research point, nor is it an exercise – it’s really a kind of structured response to one of the points raised in the Altruism in practice section in the course handbook. I needed to consider the points raised here as part of my assignment preparation.

I broke the ‘being there’ discussion down into two questions:

  • Consensual or candid?
  • Insider or outsider?

Consensual or candid

I believe that most successful documentary photography employs an element of consent; whilst it is not about every single shot being approved before the shutter is pressed, the general approval to shoot should have been given by either collaborative or authority consent. The downside to this is that the act of observation risks changing that which is observed! A successful documentary photographer makes themselves so unobtrusive that the subjects do not change their behaviour significantly in their presence. I presume this is why some documentary projects are so lengthy – a lot of time may be needed for this kind of trust (or ‘invisibility’!) to develop.

Pure candid photography (along the lines of classic street photography) is potentially an appropriate vehicle for social documentary but is open to accusations of exploitation. Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) is often held up as a successful example of candid documentary, though its scope is a whole nation so it’s a set of broad ‘truths’ about a society that emerge rather than specific revelations about a single community. Candid documentary is also at risk of being too shallow or misinterpreting the situation – missing the important context that might better explain what is unfolding in front of the camera.

Insider or outsider

The subject of whether an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ is better placed to document a community is an interesting one. From my point of view, particularly with selecting a subject for Assignment 1, I need to decide whether to photograph a ‘community’ that I am already part of, or one that I am merely temporarily observing for the purposes of the project.

The classic text on this subject is Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s 1994 essay Inside/Out – I confess that I have not been able to source the original essay but I have read the summary and analysis of it in Basic Critical Theory for Photographers (La Grange 2005). Solomon-Godeau’s examination on the issue can potentially be boiled down to the dilemma in this sentence: “We see truth as being on the inside, yet define objectivity as being on the outside.” (La Grange 2005: 126). Without positioning her views at either extreme, Solomou-Godeau is more critical of outsider photography in that some veers too far towards voyeurism or exploitation.

Whilst the criticism of outsider photography is understandable and often justified, for the sake of balance I offer two concerns about insider documentary photography: firstly, the insider risks being so close to the subject matter to not be able to discern what is interesting; and secondly, it requires a member of the community to be a curious and skilled documentarian like a Nan Goldin or a Larry Clark (and frankly able to afford a camera) and so the concept of insider photography is inherently self-limiting. Some ‘truths’ can only be revealed by an outsider (the notions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ i will cover in a separate post).

For me the sweet spot rests between the two extremes, though closer to the outsider end of the continuum; an outsider who embeds themselves in the community long enough to get under its skin (the ‘temporary insider’?), without being a ‘full member’… someone who can, over time, make themselves invisible enough for the scene to revert to its natural state – Chris Killip and (early) Martin Parr for example. There still remains the risk that in the selection and editing of the images, the photographer could be misrepresenting the ‘scene’, but this is the nature of multiple subjective ‘truths’.

Assignment implications

So what does all this mean for my proposed Assignment 1?

My preference is definitely for getting consent to shoot, as the ability to see a community in its own environment, at close quarters, must be more fruitful than stalking people on the street! My problem is that so far, both of the organisations I have approached for permission to shoot have not yet approved my request. I will persist.

I’m clearly not going to live with a community for any length of time like Killip or 1970s Parr, so the ’embedded outsider’ compromise isn’t an option. In this respect I am the classic outsider – swooping in, trying to be a fly on the wall, hoping I can get a feel for the community in a short space of time. Might be challenging! I love a challenge though.


La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press