Why Photography? The Documentary Impulse

Words & Photos by Kevin Rabalais

In the early hours of June 5, 1989, the photojournalist Stuart Franklin left Tiananmen Square, which Chinese troops had cleared of protesters the night before, and went back to his military-occupied hotel. From the balcony of his room, he watched a line of Chinese tanks advance across the square. Then the unthinkable happened. A young man stepped in front of those tanks to prevent their progress. Franklin’s photograph of this moment has become one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century. The unknown individual and that photograph share a moniker: Tank Man.

Franklin’s new book, The Documentary Impulse, examines our desire throughout history to record the moments we experience. From handprints on walls in New South Wales that date to 20,000 B.C.E. and tomb paintings at Thebes to the role of death masks, photographs of workers, tribal rites, the dismantling of empire, war, genocide and the “Humanist” work of Willy Ronis, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, Franklin helps us to understand what seems to be as much human compulsion as instinct. He puts the history of our “documentary impulse” into context, offering wide-ranging references that weave among art, photography and literature. The latter provides a kind of truth that the art critic John Ruskin recognized in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner:

There is a moral as well as a material truth—a truth of impression as well as of form—of thought as well as of matter; and the truth of impression and thought is a thousand times the more important of the two.

Franklin also explores fiction as a type of documentation. He writes about how the French economist Thomas Piketty, whose investigation of income and wealth inequality in eighteenth-century Europe, led him to the novels of Balzac, Zola and Austen. “Piketty recognized that these authors had intimate knowledge of the various forms of inequality that existed at the time (some of which still exist today),” Franklin writes. “Not a single documentary film or photograph was mentioned in Piketty’s account.”

Fiction and realist painting—art that omitted deities or the supernatural and that lacked the trace of light on film so prized by photography—have proved as worthy a part of the documentary record as photographs.

These records—painting, literature and photography—shape the way we think about and understand humanity. As testament to the power that images hold over us, Franklin considers Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of the drowned three-year-old Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi, found washed up on a Turkish beach. Discussing her photograph on CNN, Demir said, “This is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body.”

Writing in Camera magazine in 1974, W. Eugene Smith held similar notions.

Photography is a small voice at best. Daily, we are deluged with photography at its worst, until its drone of superficiality threatens to numb our sensitivity to all images. Then why photograph? Because sometimes—just sometimes—photographs can lure our senses into greater awareness. Much depends on the viewer; but to some, photographs can demand enough of emotions to be a catalyst to thinking.

As Franklin writes, “Ruskin argued, with Turner in mind, that the power of painting depends upon recovering the innocence of the eye—a sort of childish, unpremeditated response to the world.” And so from cave paintings to selfie sticks, we document our lives and the lives of others. Such documentation strives to arrest our attention. It urges us to pause, if only for a moment, and see—and not only to see but to look as though we’re undergoing the experience for the first time. This human impulse, always persistent, warns us that what we don’t consign to the wall or page, canvas or film will eventually fall into oblivion.



To receive updates from Sacred Trespasses, please subscribe or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.