The power of images

Professor Eamonn Carrabine
Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Ever since the birth of the camera in the nineteenth century it has been accused of breaching the divide between public worlds and private selves, transforming the very act of looking, and giving rise to a whole series of characterizations of this condition: the society of spectacle, the politics of representation, the gendered gaze, and so forth, are amongst the more well known. Indeed, photography was a vital element in the construction of the modern criminal subject and has since become central to the dynamics of celebrity, criminality, desire, fame, trauma and voyeurism that continue to shape social practices in significant and often disruptive ways.

The origins of documentary photography are to be found in the nineteenth century and are bound up with the expansion of colonial power.

Many of the earliest documentary photographers sought to promote social reform by exposing the injustices of the modern age. By travelling into ‘the abyss’ to document the dark, dangerous and ungovernable places where the urban poor lived the intention was to change these wretched social conditions. The documentary tradition has its roots in both anthropological exploration and political reform and reaches a ‘golden age’ in the 1930s, when socially concerned photography reaches a peak.

Alongside this morally charged movement there remained a mass market for sensationalized images of working class life and the urban condition. The infamous ‘Weegee’ is a key photographer of the era and his ‘candid’ photography both gives rise to new developments in tabloid culture and provides a bridge from the conventional topics of documentary photography to the fresh directions taken by a new generation of photographers in the post-war period.

The leading representatives of this style are Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank who each focus on new kinds of cultural landscape and subject matter.

By the 1970s, the very practice of documentary photography came under sustained critique, as questions surrounding the politics of representation came increasingly to the fore.

More recently, contemporary documentary projects confront criminological issues in striking visual ways.

For example, imprisonment has been the subject of documentary photographers for several decades now, encompassing Danny Lyon’s Conversations with the Dead, which depicts prison life in Texas State Prisons in the late 1960s, through to Richard Ross’s ongoing Juvenile in Justice project  documenting the incarceration of American youth. Indeed, the website and blog at lists some 120 professional practitioners who have sought to convey the pains of confinement in their work.

Although the genre can be condemned and dismissed for its morbid fascination with human suffering, it also offers new ways of seeing social practices and it is this dynamic which will also be explored in the seminar.