Is Documentary Photography Obsessed With Sad?

I recently attended an exhibition of British documentary photography with my father. The exhibition featured mainly black and white images made during the 1960s, 70s and 80s by some of the most recognisable names making documentary work during those decades. Martin Parr, John Bulmer, David Hurn, Homer Sykes, Daniel Meadows, Chris Killip amongst many others. It was the first photography exhibition my father had ever been to.

He had always taken family photographs documenting our lives growing up, colour prints that now fill many stiff cover photo albums, but he was a bricklayer all of his life and had left school aged 11. Therefore he has had no formal arts education, despite which his response to the exhibition was insightful and enlightening.

What he brought to his comments was life experience. The work on the walls was his life. He understood what those decades were like because he had lived through them but also the people and places in the photographs were known to him. Not individually, but socially, geographically and economically.

This background informed the comment he made that forced me to question not only the work we where looking at, but all of the documentary work I see and have seen. He asked me this question, “Why are the photographs so sad?”

He followed this initial question by asking if it was the photographer’s choice to photograph sad people, and where were the happy pictures. He explained that although times were often tough there was always some light in the darkness. Fun was had but it was not shown by these photographers.

This made me think. He was right, but I am so used to looking at this genre of work that his questions and observations have never occurred to me.

I instantly thought of the work of Bert Hardy, Grace Robertson, Kurt Hutton and Thurston Hopkins for Picture Post magazine. Life affirming images to make the reader feel more positive about their lives, when the world was dark and desperate for respite from the Second World War. But that magazine had closed in 1957, just as the swinging sixties were about to begin and British popular culture was to dominate the world.

Photography was used as a selective reflective propaganda when things were bad, but now that things were about to get better for some, photographers sought to show that the swinging sixties was not a reality for all. The documentary agenda was to reveal a reality far away from The Beatles, Mary Quant, and the 1966 World Cup Final. My father’s question was questioning this decision and suggesting that it was also a form of selective propaganda.

His use of the word sad betrayed an emotional connection he obviously felt with the images on the walls, and it made me consider the word ‘serious’. I began to wonder if the sadness he saw, was what I saw as seriousness. The seriousness of the photographer’s intent and the situations of those photographed.

We all wish our photography to be taken seriously so perhaps there is an inclination within documentary photographers to demonstrate their seriousness by avoiding moments of frivolity. The majority of documentary photography would suggest that there is some truth to this viewpoint.

I am not passing judgement on this approach, I understand it, but my father’s question has made me question the propensity of photographers adopting the same approach and the issues that could and perhaps does create. The homogeneization of any genre of photographic practice often results in a rejection of opportunity, and a conformity of image more about the photographer and his or her influences than those being photographed.

Both my father and I agreed that the work being shown in the exhibition was outstanding. It made him question what constitutes a good photograph, and it confirmed my love for this kind of work from the period they document. Most importantly it ignited discussion, which made me look again, closer and deeper. I will now look out for ‘sad’ and each time I see it I will make a mental note to thank my father for the insight.

Image: Grant Scott, Crash Happy, 2000.

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

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