Fotograf Magazine

Present Day Critical Documentary Strategies

On September 11, 2001, the entire world witnessed images in which at first their authenticity was hard to believe – and together with the passing of the 20th century, this heralded the end of the tenability of the notion of the documentary photographer as a person occupying a privileged position with the right to depict the misery of others, sending “objective” reportage out into the world; this notion had originally derived from the key role of photojournalists working for illustrated magazines, a role which had been questioned by artist-photographers already since the 1970s. During a time of global crisis and economic and social inequality as well as war, photographs, videos and films once more take on the role of criticism, however with a difference. In this regard, T. J. Demos (curator, theorist and lecturer at University College London) uses not only the phrase “migrating image”, but also “moving image”, an image which has the power to unsettle the viewer.

Themes of migration and mobility are symptomatically reflected by the structure of the book as well as in separate chapter titles: the introductory “Check-in” is followed inevitably by “Charting a Course”, in order to launch upon a trio of “Departures”. In the meanwhile, we find ourselves in zones of “Transits”, ultimately reaching our “Destination”. While the two opening chapters provide a detailed introduction to the issue of the interconnectivity of art and politics in our time, the following sections use selected art projects in order to illustrate various documentary strategies (Steve McQueen, Hito Steyerl, Otolith Group, Emily Jacir, Ahlam Shibli, Yto Barrada, Ursula Biemann, Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri, Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad, etc.)

The mission of post-documentary photography that Demos writes about (although he in fact only uses this term once in the whole book) is no longer to mediate information by means of image, but rather by means of conscious work with the limits of reality and fiction, in order to create new zones of critical thought – or, as Demos puts it: “to challenge the move away from the familiar spectacle of misery, from the sensationalized imagery of suffering in these times of proliferating humanitarian emergencies, and to take up the challenge of interrogating the complex political and economic causes behind the effects of migration hysteria and the politics of border wars, as showing how migration delineates a creative act of political transformation and a site of resistance and agency.”

Hana Buddeus