Art, Documentary, or News: Photography and Racial Politics


L1050830-Edit-2That title suggests a lot, I know. These are amazing times online. There are at any point, almost surely simultaneous, multiple battles occurring in larger cultural wars over things like racial and sexual politics. The recent Stephen Colbert – Suey Park skirmish was fascinating, the back and forth analysis provided me, at least, with an education in the current taxonomy of racial and gender politics at least framed by a small subset of the larger culture.


Anyway, so it now falls on photography to fire our interest and further the fine-tuning of all of our racial and political sensibilities. Here specifically, in the article I’m linking to, the analysis turns towards two different presentations of the same photographs taken (obviously) by the same photographer and how those presentations differ and cross many lines. Some that are probably okay to cross and some that are, increasingly, not.


None of us really want to offend with our photographs or our presentation of them, or to have our work frowned upon by those who are more in-tuned, sometimes by way of professional experience and sometimes by way of their own personal experiences, to the myriad and shifting protocols surrounding photography that involves the lives of people who are not us. Whoever we may be.


Okay that was tricky. I have included a bunch of MY recent images that I do (or do NOT) think work well with this subject matter. (I refuse to say. ;-)) But I repeat, these are NOT the images referred to in the articles. These are my own images, taken yesterday in downtown Los Angeles. By me.


I would love to hear what others here have to say about all of this. Please feel free to jump in. I think one place to start, maybe most obviously, is what is the responsibility of photographers to click the shutter, or not, when seeing realities that also represent stereotypes in his or her viewfinder. That would be a starting point for one discussion, actually. The blurred line betweens art and documentary photography, presentation and commentary, etc., all are other fascinating angles as well. Anyway.


Here is a quote that describes what the writer of this piece does in the linked article. It’s a great idea. The result itself might elicit a more mixed response from readers.

Below, I step through the images that Politico ran, juxtaposing the caption of the photo from Raab’s site with the Politico caption with a brief comment on how that copy effects the meaning of the picture. 

via Art Photography vs. News Photography: Politico, Race and the “Other Washington” — BagNews.



  1. I love the photography in this post – for its truthfulness. Not sure I want to think about the content – at least not while I look at the photography. Here’s what I mean. I think about those topics all the time. I remain aware of the social/political scene in the U.S. and elsewhere. But (and I speak as a photographer now), I think it’s the job of the photographer to just take the picture exactly as it presents itself. Later, both the photographer and other viewers can interpret it however they like. Any photo will be seen many ways by the viewers, including the photographer. I am making this comment w/o having gone to the link you provided. Personally, I don’t want to become self-conscious in my photography. I only want to take photos of what I see, things that strike me visually and/or in my heart, as they are – with no interference or over-thought from me. I don’t want to be thinking, “Oh, gosh, is that too racially charged to capture,” or “is that too social-political and ‘message-y?’ ” Forget it. Just take the picture. It is what it is. What’s in the mind of the viewer will put spin on it later – right, wrong or indifferent.
    Bob Dylan comments on this (from a song-writer point of view) in the first few minutes of this 15 minute interview:

    What he calls “magic” in his lyric writing, is what I might call “truth” in photography. But even the truth of an image can be seen differently by different points of view.
    Perhaps Dylan says it better than I do!
    Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts on this aspect of street photography and portraits of people.

    1. Thank YOU for such an honest analysis and for expressing your own feelings about this topic with such openness. I’m so WITH you on wanting to operate as free and detached from all that clicking on links and placing what is a subject that creates an imbroglio into your consciousness… what that all can do to your photography and creativity. It’s been very important for me in creating what I DO believe is a unique street photography style to distance myself often and and as much as I can from what is said by other street photographers, Nat Geo photographers, and many others… turn off their voices and use the images of the great photographers (NOT Nat Geo or current notable street photographers) to guide my aesthetic and ethos.

      I have, however, gotten to a point now, finally, where so much of what I read or hear about photography itself is … how do I say this… baked into the cake as it were. My photography being the cake. I’m 57 years old… I’m heard and absorbed most of what can be said about photography and the thinking of photographers, great and hacks, for decades. In photography and in other creative endeavors… I believe that to end up with a truly different result requires a different process.

      Here in Hollywood, in the film business, they talk about “The Hollywood Way.” And how you don’t vary from doing things the Hollywood way. There’s tremendous legal and professional mechanisms and forces in place to make sure that it is VERY difficult to veer off and attempt to do things your own way. At every step in the process. But the result… is that so much of what is produced in Hollywood bears the fruit of that sameness that’s produced by adhering to Hollywood’s two or three (if that) unavoidable process tracks.

      So I protect my photographic process and thus results from being pushed around by what other photographers think or are doing. I think I’ve done a good job of that. I have my own mature world view as far as my photography and what I’m doing.

      But I also have probably an even MORE fully mature world view when it comes to politics and that includes racial politics, something I’ve been grappling with my entire thinking life, long before becoming possessed by photography. In economic terms I’m a hard core lefty who feels this country has failed miserably at correcting the long standing horrors of inequality… but I’m also an almost serial despiser of all things having to do with political correctness, which I feel has been very destructive to our national politics.

      So in the case of a subject an slight controversy as what follows the links here… I kind of enter that with a lot of confidence on both the photographic and political fronts that I’m going to only benefit from what I’m finding and absorbing in reading through this material. But I totally understand the creative person deciding not to bother.

      I DO think that the person who has written the article critical of Politico’s extended captions is a person who is very much involved in enforcing the politically correct perspective that is ever on the lookout for anything that presents stereotypes… and even when that information is factual and presented as merely factual background. So I really disregard that perspective EVEN though I kind of have the political awareness and journalistic taste NOT to hit people in writing with the obvious.

      But here is what I found actually fascinating. The pictures were the same. (a few extras in the Politico edit) The captions by Politico were maybe slightly too skewed to “informing” and revealing on the black neighborhood and what goes on there as the “other” Washington, etc.

      But the photographer’s images were still composed and taken and presented as a group, the same mind at work in creating the shots, choosing the subjects, visually revealing the world on the other side of the river. And the writer who is so critical of Politico’s edit and captions is somehow fine with the original artists images and edit. It’s like there’s a secret handshake somewhere. There’s a polite way of showing something. The politically correct way. If you’re educated enough and can infer from just the visual information, then there it is. This is for you. A discreet thrill for the sufficiently erudite and discerning.

      But literally spell out the facts so that anyone can read and acquire information and background… because to do so is to draw pictures with words that present stereotypes… totally forbidden and subject for scorn?

      Honestly I think that at some point we’re going to have to defang those who are seeking to enforce their interpretations before they start taking away our cameras or the ability to freely use them.

      Thank you again.


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