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“ What’s documentary about photography?:
From directed to digital photojournalism ”

by John Mraz


Mexican Migrant Workers, Highway in California

Mexican Migrant Workers, Highway in California.
Pedro Meyer © 1986/90

Note to the revised version,
january 2003.

Commentaries provoked by the following essay -- especially the lengthy and thoughtful responses by the renowned photoeditor, John G. Morris. -- have moved me to make some changes in the original version, which are mainly related to the paragraph in which I discuss Joe Rosenthal’s image of the Iwo Jima flag raising. I am grateful to all who have taken the time and effort to critique my work, and I salute the medium of Internet, which permits us to interact, and thus clarify our arguments. Some initial remarks may serve to anticipate future misunderstandings.

  1. My intention in this essay is neither to malign esteemed photojournalists nor to question the courage required to make images that have become fundamental to our visual culture. The men and women who lost their lives while trying to show us the news are testimony enough to the bravery required in this work.

    Rather, the essay was written as one component of a more extensive analysis of documentary form, the credibility that is its bedrock, and the realist esthetic utilized to take advantage of the believability photography enjoys as an index (rather than an icon or symbol).

    I want to test the oft-bandied notion that digitalization is the "death of documentary photography and photojournalism" by showing that many well-known pictures have, to some degree or in some way, been a result of what the Mexican photojournalist, Nacho López, described as "previsualization".

  2. The essay forms part of a much larger study, recently published by the University of Minnesota Press, Nacho López, Mexican Photographer. López was a photojournalist in the Eugene Smith mold, committed to denouncing social injustice and exploring the esthetics of the documentary form. He worked for the Mexican illustrated magazines, and one strategy he employed was to direct images, a tactic he called "previsualization".

    My interest in examining instances of directed photojournalism was in constructing a backdrop against which to measure López’s creative photoessays. As I work on Mexican photography, and live in Mexico, the essay published on Zonezero reflects those constraints, both in terms of my particular interests as well as the research that it is possible to carry out. In the case of U.S. and European photography, I have had to rely generally on secondary sources, both because my focus is on Mexican photography, as well as a result of the limited library resources in Mexico.

  3. In the case of the Rosenthal image, I have relied on the analysis of Martha Rosler, among others. As Pedro Meyer is fond of remarking, “You must trust the author, not the medium.” Rosler is a highly-respected student of documentary photography, and I invite critics of the position here cited to engage directly with her.

See the e-mail discussion between John Mraz and John G. Morris.


Digitalization is the prime suspect in the much-discussed death of photojournalism and crisis of documentary photography (though “the end of photography as evidence of anything” is surely one among many instances of the postmodern retreat from the referent). Notwithstanding the undeniable impact of computerization on the credibility that is photojournalism’s bedrock, the unavoidable fact that so many of the most famous documentary images were somehow directed problematizes the effect of digitalization; it also offers insight into a worldview that has been quick to accept pictures as “candid” or “spontaneous,” when they were really constructed by photojournalists trading on the documentary aura.

I use the word “directed” to describe the genre of photojournalism characterized by the photographer’s intervention in the scene he or she is photographing, though the term “quasi-journalistic” might be more exact, since these individuals are working within the notions of non-interference and believability that reign in the contexts of news imagery. The following panorama of the more renowned cases of photographic direction offers a royal road through which to examine questions of authenticity and alteration, and to later extend it to the issues raised by digitalization.

I am here concerned with documentary photography and photojournalism, rather than what would be considered openly manipulated photography. Documentary credibility is based on the belief of nonintervention in the photographic act, and its discourse is structured into “codes of objectivity” that veil the effect of the photojournalist’s presence (Schwartz 1992). Conversely, expressly constructed photography explicitly announces that it has been created by an image-maker, thus establishing itself-the-photograph as a reality, while asserting that it is an illusion to believe that a photograph can show the real world.

It appears that O.G. Rejlander and H.P. Robinson made the first overtly fabricated photographs in the 1850s, and this genre has enjoyed a rich history as what we might call a “constructivist” alternative to the “realist” esthetic that has largely dominated photography. Among its many manifestations can be found the Pictorialist school of the 1890s, the photomontages of artists such as John Heartfield, the photograms of László Moholy-Nagy, the Dada-Surrealist experiments of Man Ray and, during the last thirty years, the Conceptual, Neo-Surrealist and Constructed imagery with whom we most often associate artists such as Duane Michaels, Les Krims, Cindy Sherman, and Joel-Peter Witkin.

The very thrust of explicitly manipulated photography is to critique the idea of realism, that a photograph is a window onto the world. As photojournalism is the medium that most embodies this ideology, artists such as Nic Nicosia have focused their efforts on exposing the illusions of graphic reportage by staging scenarios such as Like Photojournalism (1986), which recreate the violent and sanguinary scenes in which press photographers sometimes appear as part of the scenario.

Photojournalists have directed images in a variety of ways. In describing this genre, I have opted for a thematic approach, organized in a rough chronological order. Some of the categories I employ are well known within the study of art history, and have been utilized in analyzing constructed photography: the strategies of creating and/or restaging “living landscapes” (what art historians call narrative tableaux vivants), as well as arranging and/or rearranging still lifes. Other groupings have been suggested by photojournalist practices: the intervention in “real” events, and the use of “catalysts” to provoke reactions that the photographer has reason to expect will occur in “reality.”


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