Exercise · Post-documentary

Post-documentary art and ethics · Ine Gevers

Ine Gevers’s excellent article takes a journey through the subject of ethics. I was pleased first off to actually find someone willing to give a concrete expression and definition to the actual code of ethics that they are referring to. It is often said without much clarity in my opinion and therefore many assumptions are made. As it is, as I will mention later, Gevers clarifies that the particular stance of humanitarian ethics is wholly inadequate, nothing more than a moral set of rules and observences in effect. This has greatly annoyed me over the years, we often discuss ethics as if we were in unilateral agreement that we know what we are talking about.

The paper · Aesthetics and ethics (Art and Ethics)

We are according to Gevers entering a post-documentary state. This means that we are no longer able to present the old documentary style and motive due to the way that people have been conditioned to perceive a photograph. The ‘mixing of disciplines’ and the new presentation attempts by contemporary artists, no longer beguiled by the historic narratives of our times, are taking the time to explore the notion of truth based in personal experience. As Gevers importantly points out: ‘Looked at etymologically, aesthetics have an ethical foundation’. (Gevers, 2012.) Again she points at that in ancient contexts aesthetics has relationship to stepping out of one’s own frame of references…’aesthetics grew from an ethics of perception…’ (Gevers, 2012.) I find this truly fascinating to learn. That the notion of aesthetics has roots in the ethical for me redefines the topic hugely. Gevers laments that now we are so far away from the original conception and practice of aesthetics that it has virtually no meaning beyond a very dogmatic and narrow application. This I find tragic. The world seems to have desensitised us.

However, argues Gevers, the photographer can make choices that in some way bring back together this vital link of the aesthetic and the ethical. They are not forever lost in antiquity. But this requires the sensibility and breadth of mind of the practitioner of photography. In my own practice in the early days I believed that the more sensational the image, the better that it was. My less educated self was looking for an ego punch to satisfy itself with. So much has changed since then as now I have to consider the appropriateness of particular sorts of images for public viewing.

Photos not doing justice to the individual

Gevers points to the way that photography can so easily end up belittling the subject and not doing justice to who the person is. It is possible as she says to…‘turn people into objects and reduce their vitality.’ (Gevers, 2012.) In this vein she draw out the fact that no one really is fooled or convinced any longer about the image representing a reality or truth. Too many people are wise to the way that images can fool or be decontextualised. Yet as she mentions, however, we are supposed to carry on as a collective as if they still do. I find this curious. There is a sense in which media outlets and news carriers perhaps have not caught up with contemporary debates and academic advances in this area and so continue to propagate as before, the same old style of image.

Has documentary had its day?

So has documentary photography had its day? According to Gevers it has. The pos-colonial trend is such that the accepted mode of documentary photography is, rather than respected for presenting a truth about a race or indigenous peoples, is in fact looked upon with disdain and criticism. Such are times we live in. The narrowing of an individual by the use of objective photography in a scientific setting for instance, abstracts the person and identifies them with their condition. This is not a useful or complete picture of the situation.

Martha Rosler, writer and photographer, is held up as an example of an aware photographer in an ethical sense. Rather than taking a photo, she involves the people that she is photographing in some way, thus giving them a voice. In particular this discussion was in relation to a particular project based on inner city dwelling, architecture and urban spaces. The problems of alcohol and unemployment etc are highlighted here. Whilst I find the intention noble, I also wonder to what extent in many cases this kind of interaction would be viable for many working photographers who have a job to do of taking photos.

S-21 Cambodia images and the confusion of the aesthetic and ethical

Giving the example of the S-21 photographs of Cambodian genocide, Gevers uses this to outline how the aesthetic consideration is lost in this case. The issue cited is the showing of the images in MoMA, when they were viewed as ‘art’ rather than documentary evidence of a tragic and appalling occurrence in the world on humanitarian grounds. This for me brings up the question of context of viewing and control over that process by the photographer. Christian Caujolle, in 1998, exhibited this set of photos in Arles France, but attempted to not have the images presented as a question of art (Gevers, 2012.) The theme of the appropriateness of exhibiting this kind of tragic material in such a space as a museum does raise some strong debate. I myself remember seeing an exhibition at the South Bank many years ago of the war on Bosnia. An image of a man flattened by a tank was blown up and placed in the middle of the exhibition and in the background, classical music played. It was more like a Ken Loach movie experience than any thing else. It was not the right way to be seeing such carnage.

Another vital addition to this discussion is the comment of  Slavoj Zizek that we are on the brink of an implosion of symbolic meaning whereby nothing has any value beyond what it appears. This gradual alienation as Ardent’s suggests, does not bode well. There are very few moments of calm in daily mundane life and the notion of being contemplative, is somewhat absurd when humanity is so wired and frenetic. This brings up the question for me: How do we get people to stand still long enough to contemplate a photo, to take it in detail?

Badiou argues that ethics (as mentioned in the introduction to this exercise) are dictated  by the ‘declaration of human rights’ which are in turn standardised as a set of norms and rules. This, argues Badiou, is problematic as it is often divorced from life (Badiou, cited in Gevers 2012:9.) Badiou argues strongly for bringing ethics in more strongly as a principle that governs life, rather than something that only evokes a bit of sympathetic feeling for the victim.

The Atlas group


Atlas group archive
Atlas group archive
Atlas group archive

The Atlas group uses documentary footage but adds the imagination of the artist to picture thus forming personal truths that can perhaps lead to change (Grevers, 2012)

The atlas group archive diagrams of work produce by the collective, a group formed as a project to research and document the recent history of Lebanon.

The Atlas group uses documentary footage but adds the imagination of the artist to picture thus forming personal truths that can perhaps lead to change (Grevers, 2012)

It is up to the viewer

‘Photos have no weight’ Gevers tells us. The whole situation of a photo depends very much on the viewer to ‘co-author’ and therefore participate in the process of making meaning. However, I imagine that the photographer with skill can guide the process although in general I agree with her point here. Barthes concept of ‘punctum’ is referred to here as a necessary element to the photo in order to stimulate interest and observation. Through this act of perceiving and enduring with the image, something can effect the viewer at deeper level in terms of perception and create a shift in the way a thing is viewed.


‘Ethics and aesthetics merge here. Images that initiate something that is expressive of more than what the material thing ‘an sich’ reveals, have the potential to appeal to the viewer in an aesthetic/ethical sense.’ (Grevers, 2012)

This note brings us back in some way to the discussion of the ‘The judgment seat of photography’. In opposition to the view by Szarkowski that there is no narrative to be found in an image, I believe that the potential within photography is to help the viewer create and realise a narrative through imagination. This article has perhaps in this sense helped me clarify the link between the ethical and the aesthetic.


Atlas group archive [online] https://faqonespionage.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/the-atlas-group-archive/ [accessed, September 2020]

Gevers, I. Art and Ethics (2012) OCA student site [online] https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/IneGevers.pdf [accessed, September 2020]

Gevers, I (2012) in Art and Ethics, Badiou

Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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