MIT OCW Documentary Photography Class — Writing Assignment 3

“Objectivity – Myth, Reality, or Ultimate Goal”
Consider Cole’s view of objectivity and the biases of the documentarian, and explain whether a documentary photographer can – or should – be objective, and what part objectivity, or lack of it, plays in the value of the photographers work

To be objective, one has to have a working definition of the concept. To have that, we first need to look at “objective reality” and see if that exists. That is the reference point. Without some standard of reality, how can I, or you, decide that I have represented it as it is (objectively), with no coloring from my (conscious or unconscious) needs, wants, or biases

Within a certain framework (like assuming an experiment is performed at STP — a standard temperature of 0º Celsius and a pressure of 1 atmosphere) we can agree that some object exists in a photograph. That framework may be “common knowledge” or some other reference point the photographer and the viewer share. If you have seen a cat and I hand you a photograph of a cat and ask you what it is, you will, in all likelihood, answer, “A cat.” If you know of a cat in a general way, we share only a broader reference and you might not be as convinced that what I’m showing you is a cat. By applying what you know about a cat, four legs, pointy ears, fur, and a tail (I showed you a plain old cat, not a Manx or a Sphynx) you may deduce that it is a cat but you had to meet me more than half way.

As long as we have a common reference, objectivity is not a myth. Depending on the quality of that reference, what we call “objectivity” can be a pretty subjective subject.

So, is objectivity a reality? Really, by answering that it is not a myth, I am saying that it is a reality because they are mutually exclusive. In this idealized laboratory, if something is A or B and we know it is not A, then it has to be B. Expanding the previous example, suppose I hand you a photo of a cat and the fur is purple. If you know cats, you know I altered the image or dyed a cat. If you know of cats, you may believe it or you may not. Other mammals you might have direct experience with don’t come in purple. At an abstract level, it is still a cat, the same as a child’s drawing of a cat is a cat — not anatomically accurate but recognizable.

As in answering the question posed by reading On Photography, “Do photographs tell the truth?”, intent matters. Why did I show you a photograph of a purple cat? Am I just a smart aleck seeing how far I can get you to go along? Am I genetically engineering designer-color pets and want to convince you that it is ethically OK? Am I trying to sell you pet dye? Maybe I learned that you have never seen a cat and the only photograph available to show you is the purple cat. If that is the case, I need to tell you that cats don’t naturally come in purple to balance the distortion introduced by the color. Purple gives reality a half-twist to the left. In order not to introduce bias, to be objective, I have to give you information that gives it a half-twist to the right.

All I’ve done so far is to decide for myself (your mileage may vary) that there is such a thing as objective reality and that I can represent it to you in a photograph if we share a common reference. This experiment is at STP and probably not reproducible in the real world and ignores larger existential questions completely. I can show you a picture of a cat and within that idealized framework, a perfect common reference, we can agree that it is a cat.

After that prolix introduction, I can get to the heart of the question: Can a photographer, or a documentarian in general, be objective? I don’t think Coles really answered the question in Doing Documentary Work. There are different types of documentary work and I think of them in the same categories given for speeches: informative, instructive, persuasive, and entertaining (narrative storytelling). These categories speak to the intent and not just the content but an article or photo essay must also be entertaining or it will never see the light of day to inform, instruct, or persuade.

Think of the humble aluminum can, which can be documented in various ways (from most objective and least interesting/entertaining to least objective and most interesting/entertaining in my subjective opinion):

Informative: This is a can made of aluminum. It can hold liquids.

Instructive: This is a photographic essay about how cans are made from bauxite ore or recycled aluminum, how they are used, and how they can be recycled or thrown away.

Persuasive: Here are the benefits of using an aluminum can and I will show you why it is preferable to a glass bottle.

Entertaining: A day in the life of those wacky kids at the bottling plant.

Coles focuses exclusively on persuasive documentary work; the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and others trying to effect policy change. This is documentary with an agenda, “I believe there is a question of fact, value, or policy and I intend to persuade you that my view is the correct view.”

The FSA photographers Coles writes about didn’t just inform, “this is a migrant worker”, or instruct, “she moves from place to place picking crops in exchange for money or other items of value”, they persuaded, “she has almost nothing, her children are hungry, she makes very little from toiling under cruel farm bosses, this is wrong, and we need to help her and others like her”.

By assembling and editing, the photographs became stories although the intent was still to persuade. To tell the stories, the photographs went through each type of documentary, becoming less objective in an absolute sense even as they became a more cohesive, persuasive, and ultimately influential narrative.

Pure objectivity is so rare in practice that for any real purpose, it is a myth. It is theoretically possible, but if achieved solely for the sake of objective purity, “this is a cat”, “this is a can”, the subject has to be so isolated from context it is almost meaningless. Should objectivity be the ultimate goal? If I’m photographing some never-seen-before type of cat, yes. Its existence is a complete statement. If I want to say anything about it, I have to choose a way to describe it or its actions. “The cat is ___.” “The cat does ___.” I choose how to fill in the blanks and in choosing, I have made a subjective decision.

Wikipedia entry on Robert Coles.
Course link