St. Ann’s Warehouse, a theater in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, was dark and crowded on a pleasant Saturday afternoon last summer, when about a dozen documentary photographers who were taking part in the New York Photo Festival wedged themselves behind a table on the stage. The cramped seating didn’t much ease the tension in the air. While discussing their work—one of them called it “hypersubjective,” another “nontraditionally” documentary—the photographers kept circling back to a review of the festival published a day or two earlier in the New York Times. Ken Johnson had written that their images evoked “the feeling of a fast, superficial skimming of the world appealing to random, short-attention-span curiosity.” While he argued that the photographs weren’t “striking enough” to waken deeper interest in their subjects—a serious fault for images billed as documentary—he also dismissed them as too beautiful, “nearly hallucinogenic” in their aestheticization. In different ways each photographer groped for a response, with the bewilderment of one who’s been misunderstood by a friend.
That documentary photography can’t be both gorgeous and ethical is by now an old and dog-eared criticism, though Johnson was probably also disappointed by the quality of the stuff he’d seen. Jessica Hines plays with irreconcilable scale and unbridgeable time in some of her photos, which reflect on her older brother’s suicide ten years after he served in Vietnam: she went to where he’d been during the war and held up his old snapshots of those places against present-day backgrounds—and photographed the combination. The visual effect is not quite as charged as the experience must have been. Alejandro Chaskielberg staged photographs of South Americans on the Paraná River delta at night, using a long shutter speed that made his large prints gush with Technicolor. His figures looked static, caught in sweetened and phantasmagorical setups. Later in the summer, at an exhibition called “Otherworldly” at the Museum of Arts and Design, I thought back on Chaskielberg’s bright-plastic scenes: they seemed related to the “false documentary” photographs of meticulously built dioramas and dollhouses that were on display uptown—conscience journalism from an imaginary place.
Probably the most provocative technique in Dumbo was also the least “creative”—that of Basetrack, a collective that had launched a web-based project to document the American war in Afghanistan. The pictures of one Basetracker were big, square blowups of snapshots taken with smartphones using the Hipstamatic app, a filter that simulates the grainy, faded look of prints and Polaroids that was common during the early childhoods of most of today’s iPhone owners. Basetrack’s idea was to make war images, which often look alien and alienating, seem as familiar as casual snapshots, and as difficult to ignore. The tiny furor ignited by the group’s decision to use a commercial app was similar to the debate that arose earlier this year when New York Times photographer Damon Winter earned a prize from Pictures of the Year International for a Hipstamatic photo of two American soldiers in Afghanistan. If there’s an initial jolt to seeing war captured with the same antiquing app used to immortalize a Sunday brunch, it wears off quickly in these photographs. They’re carefully framed, capturing “decisive moments,” yet look like they could have been taken during the mujahedeens’ decade-long war with the Soviets and snipped from faded issues of National Geographic.
At St. Ann’s Warehouse, a number of the photographers shrugged off the strictures of documentary work altogether. “We don’t go to galleries and ask for a text to a painting or sculpture, but photography has this claim to reality.” The word “claim” seemed cradled in scare quotes. Hines said that photography “just reflects what’s in our own minds, obviously.” A moderator of the panel and curator of the show, Enrico Bossan, couldn’t resist a cheeky question: “Documentary or citizen journalism? If we want to kill it, do we kill documentary or citizen journalism?” The photographer Benjamin Lowy said, “It’s not a competition. ‘Amateur journalism’ is a demeaning term. Did any of us go to journalism school? We’ve just been doing it longer. Our time of spot news recording is at an end.”