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The attempt of a clarification
Or why the term "documentary" always was imprecise and misleading

The connection of photography with reality has lead to some confusion.
The question never was whether a photograph tells the truth – it puts a frame around it, the nature of photography never was and never could have been to tell the whole story which would be something that is more connected to a sense of truth.
The fact that photography got so overloaded with high hopes – finally, the one medium that can tell us the truth, independent from human inaccuracy or the option to betray– is understandable, since photography does have a specific relationship with reality, it can show exactly what is in front of someone, up to the borders of the frame. It can also remove things – either the person who takes the photograph removes something manually, or retouches it out of the negative (like Dorothea Lange in her famous photograph migrant mother), or while making the print, or with Photoshop, or the situation in front of the camera was completely staged – as, apparently, some of Capa' s war photographs were.
At least the option of staging a photograph was something that people would use almost in the very moment photography got invented. Usually people do not try to stand still with a stick in their back for an hour, which was exactly the procedure people had to go through to get their portrait taken, due do the long exposure times. The backgrounds were set up, too, revealing the wish of a specific representation.
Photography was invented, within a construct people can lie for whatever their agenda might be. They will keep on doing so, whether in photography, with video or at whatever side of the bank account they are standing on.
That does not mean that we should immediately stop to trust a news photograph. We should believe it as much as the reporter who writes the according text.
It can do exactly that – talking about a specific aspect within a certain situation, in case of journalistic photography, based on the rules connected with a journalistic photograph. Usually, the news photograph says nothing, only additional information can give some sense to situations like "people screaming on the street" or the like.
News photography is not documentary photography, it is a product.
The hopes that are inherent in believing what the reporter says are exactly the same that are connected with the photograph – that the reporter does his job carefully and that his agenda is to try to report as precise and unbiased as possible for a human.  (aside of the aspect that the driving power behind reportages is the need to sell a story, conditions where reporters could work independent and tell a more whole story instead of snippets with questionable value might make the agenda connected with reportages less suspicious)


The same is true for videos, they put a frame around something and are edited.
The sound could be completely manipulated, the whole setting could be staged – or not. I recently read a report about an incident in Kenya, the report said that it was impossible to decide whether the video that shows people getting mistreated by other people was either really showing abuses executed by government troupes or was staged from the rebels in order to defame the government troops, which is where the question of agenda comes into play. It is us who has to either trust or not, based on more information than the ones contained in the shown "documentary" material.
The agenda is crucial, not the material.


The closest to an actual documentary photography are the photographs taken by Google street view, and only the single shots – the very moment someone decides – "this street, now" removes it from a document. In the moment an agenda comes directly into play, it cannot be a document, if a document can be understood as a neutral description of facts.

Documents never tell the truth, too, they also look at specific slices of reality based on a specific interest. On that behalf I can understand why photography was so long misconnected with the idea that it could be a document.
Taking a photograph has nothing to do with typing a document though.
Everybody knows that joke where the photographer falls backwards into a swimming pool or down a cliff. This commonplace could give good hints towards what photography could be about: a relationship, a position taken.
The position the Bechers occupy is, to become as invisible in that position as possible to give the subject as much space as possible. It is just one out of a million possible positions one could inhabit, taken more in order to describe something and less to interpret, yet it remains a position; (it is not a mathematical description of all different water tower buildings comparing the volume, height, etc…)
taken in order to describe something the Bechers decided to be of interest in the first place, which speaks of an agenda one step before the agenda of  documents.
Photography is not a document when defined as an objective description of something. A passport photography is much more imprecise than a fingerprint, still they are the most interesting part of the passport – it is where the homeland security employee looks first, then compares it to the given face.

A document is based on neutral descriptions of specific circumstances.
Taking passports as an example for a document, it contains information such as "this person that looks something like that person on the photograph and has this biometric data has this name and that finger print."
The passport contains the exact same data about very different people, but the agenda happens one step behind the passport, with the regarding government that has or has not an interest to let people with this or that data into a country.
The agenda in the case of the Becher-photographs is already in the photographic piece itself, which removes them from being a document.

What kind of truth could then be contained in a photograph, the photograph says nothing about the mood I was in when I took it, it says nothing about the mood the person I photographed was in, all it says is that I think that one moment has more importance within the logic of a sequence than the moment before or after.
The decisive moment has not that much to do with it – during the next day, another moment could function as well.
It is closer to interpretation – some interpretations are from a very personal angle, some from a very analytic, some from a terrible ideology. Nobody complains about the fact that text does not necessarily tell the truth, nobody ever had that problem with video, only photography happened to be connected with high hopes that afterwards it fell very deep.

My huge interest in photography has something to do with it's specific relationship with the appearance of reality and in what forms of languages (photographic languages) that could be translated.
Photographs have an alien nature – I do not think in the same way I take a photograph, my thoughts are in a constant flow, a photograph is the opposite – I think differently when I photograph. I see differently when I photograph. I never photographed how I see, that would be ridiculously boring. When I photograph, I try to take a photograph that translates what I think about a specific place/situation/stuffed animal into a photograph.


In the same time, that alien state is one of  the biggest problems of photography.
It talks a language that is complicated to grasp.

Yet is has some qualities that no other medium has:
It takes little slices out of situations and transforms these into an abstracted image.

It is so alien that it might have a very specific quality that could tell us something about us (or, how a horse actually moves)
that is not inherent in any other medium.
It can open little peep holes – into the past, (recent or long gone) – a quality that was connected with the connotation of a photograph towards death – I not too sure about this aspect, I think about death when I think about dead people, but not when I think about my lunch yesterday or yesterday, at all.


That on some levels confusing relationship of photography with reality kept me from making major mistakes. My agenda never was to tell the truth, it was the question of "what if you look at it like this"?
When I ask to trust my photographs it has nothing to do with me claiming to be very trustworthy, it is just crucial for my work – I am interested in finding out whether what I think about something is right or not, if I can find a resemblance to it in a photography or not. The huge quality of working within this field of connection of photography with reality is simply preventing me from making conclusions that are wrong.
"What if you look at it like this"? is based on the background that I actually found that image, that for that part of a second, it was what I experienced, that the construct of photography the way I use it has a more grounded relationship within world, it has to do with an actual experience as opposed to stage something, which is an idea translated into reality as opposed to going through the process of letting an idea clashing with actual experience.
I am interested in that aspect of photography with the outer appearance of reality and questions of what that could mean, what photographic images are a good translation of that.
It is not about one decisive moment, but one moment that can speak about a lot of more moments like that that just happen not to work as a photograph.


Using Richard Billingham's work "Ray is a laugh" as an example – all of his photographs could be carefully staged, set in scene, the man and woman on the photographs could be actors, the whole house a set. Yet while looking at the book, that thought never occurred to me, simply because the agenda behind the book seems so believable, and I have trouble to think of any good reason to stage a book like that – the whole logic of the book plays on another level.

So-called straight photography is anchored with that logic in reality – exactly a 1/125 second more than a staged photograph, or, in other cases, 24 month (long-term exposure of the constructions of the Potsdamer Place by Michael Weseley).

The alien aspect of photography is what makes working with it so complicated – we don't think like photography, we are in a constant flow, a photograph is the opposite – so what can we find out with a tool that is merely opposed to our whole experience?
What photographic languages needs to be developed to remove a photograph out of it's alien state and come closer to something we can understand as an analysis and interpretations of aspects of life?

Some use words to write poems, some to tell a short story, some to describe a situation. The same is possible with photography, the problem is, all that is still only called photography.
The lack of definition what exactly constitutes photography - are Gursky's dream-like images a photograph or not?  (which has nothing to do with the qualitys inherent in his work, it is a question to analyse photography, to sharpen borders)
might be part of the problem, as well as the lack of developed language about photographs that specifically deal with the relationship of photography and an actual reality.
Developing a language for photography is necessary because every other medium already has one – not as an exclusive mode, but as an operative mode.


"There is no doubt that nature, as it manifests itself to the camera, is different from nature as it manifests itself to the human eye; different above all, in that for a perceptual space permeated by human consciousness is substituted one which is not."
- Walter Benjamin

Half of that sentence speaks about an inexpertness with the medium:
People are holding the camera, so the camera takes the photograph that people think they see  - they still photograph what is manifests to the human eye, so the perceptual space permeated by human consciousness is not substituted by one which is not.
The clash between the both is where photography becomes interesting.


During a period where Duchamp placed an urinal into an art context, Stieglitz was inventing terms and rules that could define "Art photography" – that direct relationship with the outer appearance of world was probably too much of a ready-made?
When Stieglitz declared that everybody could be an artist (long before Beuys) he was ahead of his time, in the same moment, he connected it with a mode of artifice, and that connotation of artifice has changed a lot since then, not only for photography.

Ideas like "the decisive moment" and Winogrand's "I take a photograph of something to see what it looks like when photographed" where discarded instead of elaborated further.
They are absurd, but speak about the absurdity of the medium – there is no such thing as the decisive moment, there is the right moment, light and position to take a photograph, as opposed to the million that appear irrelevant, not, are.
Allan Sekula pointed out that the belief that photography can tell the truth has now been replaced with the belief that photography cannot tell the truth.
As elaborated before, the agency is the crucial aspect, not the photograph itself.


It is a position taken twice – once, when the photograph is taken somewhere in the world, then again, during the editing process and the transfer into a book/onto a wall.
The formal approach, subject matter, the relationship of both, all that stands in for something;
a position taken towards the world.