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Latvian photographer Andrejs Grants decided to illustrate his answer by using the photograph by Michael Belk, 2009.

What is documentary photography? 0

Veronika Viļuma,

As part of the “Diena Newspaper Photography Award” exhibition, a scientific conference on the development, trends and future of today's documentary photography will be held on 20 February at Riga Art Space. Digitalization of the medium of photography has encouraged cardinal technological and contextual changes in visual culture as a whole, and that includes having a powerful influence on documentary photography. This transformation has been visible not only in terms of its circulation, accessibility, exhibition and ability to be collected, but also in an institutional context, by affecting the work of photo agencies, galleries and museums. The following professional researchers, educators and specialists in the field of photography will be presenting lectures at the conference: philosopher Kārlis Vērpe; researcher and professor, Sergejs Kruks; Riga Stradiņa University Professor of Communications and Media, Ilva Skulte; and photographer and educator, Alnis Stakle.

Discourse on the expansion of the field, and the problematic issue of the setting of boundaries, is a global phenomenon, as illustrated by its appearance at symposiums and exhibitions in the last few years virtually the world over. Kate Bush, head of London's Barbican Art Galleries, in commenting on the recent exhibition of documentary photographs from the 1960s and 70s, spoke about “photography's unique relationship with the world, real events and experience”. So then, what is the relationship between modern-day documentary photography and reality? decided to ask the following question to professionals of the field: What, in your opinion, is documentary photography? 

Alnis Stakle, Latvia

Documentary photography has been described as a genre, a tradition, a style, a direction and a practice, and these days it is not possible to come up with a single definition; is is also impossible to ignore the often ambiguous and, at different periods in time, varying theoretical approaches in explaining the relationship between photography and reality. It is worth noting that the etymology of the word “documentary” is linked to the Scottish filmmaker John Grierson, who used the term in 1926 to describe films with content based on the observation of events – in opposition to the Hollywood films of the period, which usually contained staged events. I believe that, in the Eastern European context, it is rather naive to single out any one approach to documentary photography, or a theoretical direction in its interpretation, since most of them are based on the Western European cultural context, and are not necessarily applicable to this environment. I propose that documentary photography be considered open to discussion and subject to a changing interpretation of approaches – as it is being done in photography, art and everyday life. It is important to critically evaluate and discuss, in a public forum, the interaction and power relations between and among various individuals and social groups.

Iveta Vaivode, Latvia

I do not believe in the possibility of objective reality being reflected in photography, and to that end, only the interpretation of the photographer is important to me. In other words, when I see a rainbow in the sky, I do not care that what I see as a seven-colored arc is only an illusory effect induced by small water droplets.

Andrejs Grants, Latvia

It seems that two things must be distinguished: Firstly – documentary photography as an image, derived and presented by any technical means, that depicts an authentic fragment of reality in a specific place and time, and has not been manipulated either technically or in terms of content. Secondly – the aesthetics of documentary photography as an image, derived and presented by any technical means, that depicts an authentic fragment of reality in a specific place and time, and has not been manipulated either technically or in terms of content, or that leads one to believe that it has not been manipulated. One could say that the aforementioned applies to documentary photography in both the narrower and wider sense. 

Ieva Epnere, Latvia

In today's context, it is difficult to respond to such a question because photography itself has changed when compared to the time when the term "documentary photography" appeared. The situation in society has changed, and there are many more restrictions than in the past, concerning what is allowed and what is not. Along with the appearance of the iPhone, Facebook and other similar technologies, a new language of documentary photography is emerging. I should also mention the overabundance of images now – there is a lot of repetition and few surprises. In terms of Latvia, I think an interesting work in this niche is "Latvijas piezīmes / Notes on Latvia" by Arnis Balčus.

Reinis Fjodorovs, winner of the “Diena Newspaper Photography Award” for 2012, in the category “Documentary Photograph”, Latvia

My attitude and style are still in the process of formation, so I'd rather talk about changes that I have observed. It is difficult, or even impossible, to define what is documentary photography today because right now it is intensely changing. In attempting to define the main directions in which photography is heading, the following are possible: 1. The trend of moving away from reflecting global and impersonal problems (hunger in Africa, drug abuse in Afghanistan), and towards local and personal stories. 2. The expansion of documentary photography's aesthetic border, and the use of new media (sound, video). 3. The emergence of a new platform, and the disappearing of the old one. The appearance of new magazines on the web, the new genre of “web documentary”, and the fact that self-publishing is becoming popular. The disappearance of the printed media is also impacting the current changes that are going on.

Ulvis Alberts, USA and Latvia

For me a good documentary photograph is being at the right place at a moment when converging elements, say people, come together at the instant I trip the camera shutter. The moment is almost always “captured” with a wide or semi-wide angle lens. And it has to fill the camera frame, with little or no “cropping” of the photograph later in printing. Probably, photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson and his “decisive moment” is the best known practitioner of the art.

Dénes Farkas, the representative of Estonia at the 55th Venice Biennial, Estonia

For me the whole concept of "documentary" is quite fuzzy. But in the more classical sense - and not approaching it as a conceptual artist -, I guess it is just the tool (photography as such) in our hands with what we just want to beat death - the decay.  Although I'm not a big fan of Barthes, I guess he is right that in the project - beating the decay - photography is contra productive; we are stronger in producing the feeling of the unchangeable. 

I do not believe in the ability of copying the existing. I am creating (as I would draw or paint) with my camera but, of course, I am using the common feeling that what you see on the image is something.

Marge Monko, Estonia

As an artist working with photography, I also relate to and observe what is going on in the other fields of photography (advertising, journalism, etc.). Some of my works can be considered as “documentary” but not in a strict way. I'm interested in political issues; for me photography is a critical tool but my task as an artist is to look for alternative ways of representation. In fact, I'm sometimes quite annoyed by the kind of documentary photography that - as Hito Steyerl puts it, is an important part of the contemporary economy of affect. Images that force us to gaze at the pain and suffering but give us no possibility for taking part of it.

I'm more interested of the methods that are combining documentary with conceptualism or staging, for instance the works by Broomberg & Chanarin and by Walid Raad. In this kind of documentary photography, still lives or landscapes can sometimes be more powerful than the images of action or affect.

Anders Petersen, Sweden

I have no idea.