Coursework, Part 1 - The photograph as document, Project 2 - Photojournalism

Project 2 – Critical debates

If your interested in the critical debates around photojournalism, try and make time to find out more about at least one of these critical positions during your work on Part One.

1. Charity – Martha Rosler

Martha Rosler believed that the social conscience of well-meaning photographers such as Lewis Hine was not helping the social situation because it reinforced the gap between rich and poor. She argued that the need for the poor to rely on the rich for sustenance and social change is not beneficial in the long term and that it’s simply a way of reinforcing hierarchical structures imposed by capitalism.

– Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine? is there a sense in which work like this is exploitative or patronising? Does this matter if someone benefits in the long run? Can photography change situations?

Lewis Hine is an American photographer. He used his camera as a way to campaign for social change. Hine’s photographs were used to help change child labour laws in the United States. I do believe Rosler is unfair on her judgement towards Lewis Hine as he used his photography for a good reason, to help children in poor and dangerous living conditions. However, Rosler believed that Hine and other photographers shooting with the disadvantage were influencing social work and righting wrongs. Rosler believed the photographers did not understand that these wrongs visible in the images were important for the social system. Rosler believed that the photographers were allowing the viewer to show sympathy for the poor and underprivileged. This made Rosler believe that the photographers were making a firm case for charity rather than self help.

2. Compassion fatigue – Susan Sontag

Sontag argued that bombarding the public with sensationalist photographs of war and poverty was a certain way to numb the public’s response. She believed that the more distressing images people saw, the more immune they become to their impact; viewers became reduced to inaction, either through guilt or a dismissive lethargy towards making a difference.

Sontag reversed this view in ‘Regarding the pain of others (2004)’, but ‘compassion fatigue’ is still used as an argument against war imagery today.

– Do you think images of war are necessary to provoke change? Do you agree with Sontag’s earlier view that horrific images of war numb viewers responses?

Susan Sontag believes photographs are not interpretations unlike writing and handmade images. Photographs are seemed to be pieces of reality that the someone can own. They hold knowledge and information about the world which gives power to the viewer. However, Sontag believed that having such power over something is stepping towards being alienated from it. If the viewers are seeing the same images on subjects such as war and poverty over and over again, Sontag believed their responses can become numb. The reality can change as well as the context. As child Sontag saw images of Nazi concentration camps, these images are said to have a huge impact on her… ‘I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying’ (La Grange, 2005). I agree in Sontag’s beliefs in some ways. When I see images of poverty on TV adverts, I feel awful saying it, but I don’t think I feel anything. I think this is because I know that I cant help, I can’t contribute to giving to the charity, so I try and be immune it. I pretend I haven’t seen the images or the video.


La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. 1st Ed. Oxford, Elsevier. [Accessed 18/02/2020] [Accessed 20/02/2020] [Accessed 20/02/2020]

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