The most important part of the much-quoted sintagm “the politics of representation” was overlooked by most of the contemporary documentary photography and critical art – that part is politics. It is surprising that nowadays a certain belief still haunts the discourse of photography and critical art. The belief in representation or rather the belief in revolutionary potential of critically engaging with the regimes and politics of representation. Surprising because despite its obvious critical function and potential it fails to address the “modest” demand placed upon it in the late eighties by Allan Sekula – the demand of social pragmatism. As “without coherent oppositional politics, though, an oppositional culture remains tentative and isolated.” We can find another equally important statement regarding the documentary and politics in the writings of his contemporary Martha Rosler: “no practice of social documentary that sees itself as providing evidence of structural injustice can flourish where there is no model of social progress, of implied routes to get to a better place.” Maybe it was this blunt pragmatism that pushed the critical art more in the domain of art and most of what is considered contemporary photography (be it art or documentary) with it. Sekula’s call for pragmatism was (and still is) mostly ignored for one simple reason. It is hard to avoid the temptation of contemporary art and photography sanctuary – of a vibrant place where criticality, non-consumerism, contra-capitalism can thrive; of a place where criticism can quickly be turned into artistic event; a place where so much of genuine creativity and social sensibility lingers precariously bordering (and more often than not crossing to) commodification.
But ressentiment towards art and documentary (although mostly justified) is the price we pay for focusing too narrowly on photography as a representation and thinking it to be all the photography (of demanding to much from to narrow a field). It neglects that there was always more to photography than a photograph (it needs to be recognised that the “power” of photography never did lie solely in the pictorial but – among other – also in the photographing act – the social photographic encounter, of which art is just a small part of it). Furthermore, such a view neglects the contemporary condition of photography. The condition where pictorial representation is increasingly becoming just a veil for a new kind of “real” representation in electronic, metric, data sense (notions of algorithms, biometric data, data mining, social control, photographs as weapons come to mind). It should be recognised by now that veracity (and of course realism) of a photograph establishes itself through instrumentalization of images (function) and that therefore one needs to ask oneself what is the actual contemporary function of photography – what are the predominant modes of its uses – before even attempting to solve the issue of its contemporary documentary, revolutionary, progressive potential. If something as a “new documentary” could develop, it should leave behind its genre limitations and most part of its history (with a few notable exceptions, some of them quoted here). Its formula would most probably appear as something like this: sound pragmatism coupled with a model of social progress, focusing on the instrumental aspect of the images while recognising the contemporary condition of photography and at the same time avoiding the trap of institutional contemporary art and photography sanctuary. Maybe we are simply asking for too much. John Grierson wrote that what enlightenment lacked was not the power of ideas but the means of their dissemination and implementation and that documentary film can neatly fill the gap since it is all about »the dramatic process of sparking the mind and the heart into new hope, new vision, new realization, and new efforts in citizenship.« Should we still hold on to this old but noble enlightenment principle? Which of the photographies (and all theirs various modes) can lend a helping hand? And if none – can documentary really abandon the »sparking the mind« part of the equation and focus on putting itself to work in some new way? Would it than be still called documentary and should it be?
Jan Babnik, born in 1977 in Ljubljana, where he currently lives and works as an editor, curator, and educator. He is editor in chief of Membrana, a magazine on photography, and director of Membrana Institute – publisher of the magazine Fotografija and Membrana, books on photography and photography theory, and organizer of education modules (School of Photography Criticism). He has been a member of the Slovenian Society of Aesthetics since 2005. In 2008 he finished his MPhil in Philosophy at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. He is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy and Theory of Visual Culture course at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Primorska. In his PhD research he is focusing on the phenomena of the rise of participatory photography practices at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21th centuries and their relation to the traditions of documentary photography and participatory documentary practices.