Crecia C. Swaim
Conventions of photography that can show a heightened sense of reality can also distort it or misrepresent it. Who hasn't ever paused a film, only to capture the character on-screen in some sort of bizarre facial expression? Played through, that expression is one miniscule piece of the overall whole, not at all detectable. Yet frozen by the pause button, the entire meaning of what is happening disappears; the moment is taken out of context. In the same way, flashing a photograph, capturing a moment, can sometimes misrepresent what is actually happening. Lange has been quoted as saying: "Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still."
Cropping an image can also change a photograph's meaning entirely. Sometimes Lange zooms in on her subject at the point of photographing it, deciding right away to exclude the environment, to focus entirely on the humanity of the subject. Other times she includes more of the background rather than less, as she is interested in context. Yet even these images select what is included and excluded from the frame, either manually at the moment of the shot, or else afterwards, sometimes, by cropping. Pages 9-10 of the MOMA exhibition book examine one image presented two different ways, one cropped and one not. It is an excellent illustration of the power of cropping to mold meaning by manipulating the image. See
Lesson Plan 2
-- Documentary and Fact
for a lesson on the power of cropping to alter meaning, using the above-mentioned photographs.
Some documentary photographers will add objects to the scene, or take some away; others will pose the subjects of the photograph. They argue that there is "nothing wrong with moving an object or posing a subject to create a photograph that call(s) attention to a known social or economic problem (Curtis 17)." They will move things to make the picture more orderly, either for aesthetics or, most often, to convey "the order and beauty that [they] believe lay beneath the surface of (in the case of this quote, the subjects') poverty (Curtis 24)." Others argue that, because people tend to believe the camera, because they take for granted that whatever is captured on film is real, then the documentary photographer has a social and moral obligation to merely capture what is there. Yet the photographer always chooses what to capture, and how, deciding what merits being a part of the picture's frame. Even if a photographer does not crop, pose, add props, have subjects repeat actions for a better shot, or touch up the photographs, even still the photographer is by necessity choosing to present some facets of reality while leaving others out.
There is also the issue of documentary photography as photojournalism versus photography as art. Lange's contemporary Walker Evans says of photography, that "…while technical competence might produce such images, artistic insight alone could give them meaning and impact (Curtis 25)." That quality of giving meaning and impact also contributes to artistic vision.
The idea of permission is an important ethical question to consider. Should the documentary photographer be required to obtain permission to photograph someone, or is it any person's individual freedom to photograph whomever he or she so chooses? If sold or somehow or other become worth money, should the subject of a photograph be paid? Should the person be paid regardless of whether or not the photograph makes money? What does a photographer do if he or she cannot ask the subject for permission? Does the photographer owe anything to the subject? Where is the line drawn?
Classroom Implementation Opportunities
The PBS American Photography website has many opportunities for students to learn through exploration. Items can be viewed by the class together by way of an LCD projector or individually by students at the computer lab. Depending on your needs, either one class could be held at the computer lab and students could navigate the site with a scavenger hunt-type worksheet that guided them through all the areas you'd like them to view, or each day you could show one short bit in the classroom as a transition activity. In that case, I would show the introduction to the Image Lab on the first day of the unit. For reinforcement of the cropping issue, see the Image Lab section
At the Edge
, which engages students with the photograph studied in
Lesson Plan 2
in this unit. It shows how different croppings affect the message of the photograph. Image Lab
Virtual Photo Lab
could be viewed when discussing
, as it explains the social context of that photograph. Image Lab
is a quick, fun activity exploring the ability to completely alter digital photographs, by way of creating a political campaign poster with personalized audience characteristics. There are also three videotapes with plenty of short interviews and clips to be shown as seen fit, and transcripts available online. See
Lesson Plan 3 -- Practicing Photojournalism
for another way to use this website.
As a quick, fun demonstration of how photography captures an image out of context, you can have students actively move about the room. Let individual students have turns using a digital camera to take photographs, and have fun viewing the distorted images of action frozen in time!