Over the course of the 20th century the term “documentary photography“ attained a variety of very different meanings. One can speak of a photographic archive of society, an easily abused tool of power, and also a tool of resistance. What could the assorted meanings of photography be at the beginning of the 21st century? Will it assert itself as an important device enabling us to exercise a critical viewpoint on the present, despite the fact that the very credibility of photographic representation has been thrown into doubt? Which of the possible functions the photographic documentary has taken on over the years will prove the most inspiring for contemporary artists?
“True documentary photography does not exist yet,“ Martha Rosler wrote in one of her essays, alluding to a situation where although there exist a huge amount of socially engaged images, society has become accustomed to absorbing these as part of the consumption of daily news coverage which testifies more about the recipient – approximately in the sense that “I live better than others“, rather than offering insight into the life of others. Perhaps true documentary photography does not in fact exist. In spite of this, we wish to discuss the ways in which the contemporary visual arts transmit information about the world around us. We do not attempt to categorize all of the various genres and approaches; rather, to put forward the question of what the term documentary actually denotes. What is it that we as viewers are prepared to regard as objective, even though we rationally know that due to its very essence photography cannot be a true imprint of reality? It remains to be seen whether perhaps selected artistic approaches, and their subjective perspectives, may bring a more inspiring and authentic report to the testimony of reality.
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin