Ani internet search for Paul Seawright leads to his web site where we learn that he is ‘professor of photography and Head of Belfast School of Art at the University of Ulster’ and that ‘in 2002 he was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum London to undertake a war art commission in Afghanistan’. (Paul Seawright, 2017). I have already looked at an image from this series ‘Hidden’ where we see his aftermath approach; images taken after the action has ceased .
Seawright’s Valley, 2002
We live in an age where far too many people harbour a hate toward others because they are different to them. Different religions, different cultures, different politics, different football teams. Violent conflicts can result and many ordinary people can (and do) lose their lives as a result. Seawright in his series ‘Sectarian Murder’, revisited the sites of some of the 1970s attacks near Belfast where innocent people were murdered all because of religious differences.
Seawright uses narrative from newspaper articles of the time to provide context for his images. The result is that the viewer’s interpretation is limited and he/she is forced to read the image in light of the atrocities that the words describe. The viewer cannot interpret the images purely from inside the frame.
I am reminded here of my studies at the end of EYV last year where an image by William Seaman contained all the information a viewer needed in order to interpret the scene. Here we see a damaged child’s cart in the middle of the road and a child covered with a sheet. The police officer is taking notes and the doctor is walking away. We have sufficient information here to piece together that a child has been run over and has died at the scene.
Photograph by William Seaman
With Seawright’s images however, we are given some written context and it is the narrative that directly influences how we read the image. Viewing the images without the narrative could give an unclear message and perhaps a confusing one for the viewer while s/he tried to work out what the series ‘means’.
The image below for example could be read in the context of a private detective hired to follow this man, it could be a comment on the untidy state of common land, it could be to show the successful regeneration of disused land etc. BUT with the narrative (a 31 year old man was found under some bushes … he had been shot dead) we immediately ‘see’ a body in the undergrowth.
Image by Paul Seawright Sectarian Murder
How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art?
Seawright considers that his images give up their meaning slowly and that the ‘construction of meaning is not done by (the photographer) but by the person looking at the artwork’. Regarding the images of Sectarian Murder, I find that without the narrative they would be slow to release any meaning but with the narrative the meaning is made clear. A documentary image would be more explicit and if a man was found dead ‘under some bushes’ we may expect to see images of cordoned off police investigation areas, perhaps even the body covered in a sheet. So, in contrast to that sort of image, Seawright’s image does take longer to reveal its meaning and is less documentary because of it. However, the narrative reveals the context so we can read the meaning whilst not actually ‘seeing’ the event itself.
What is the core of his argument?
Seawright considers the difference between journalism and art and explains that an editorial image ‘has to give up its meaning quickly’ whereas artwork has to give up its meaning more slowly. He says however that if an image is ‘too ambiguous it becomes meaningless’. Vimeo. (2017).
If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?
A documentary image is one that documents a real life event as a way of either recording it for posterity or informing people. The photographers who take these images become, in effect, ‘our eyes on the World’ as they see events that ‘we wouldn’t be allowed to see’. (Golden, 2011, p.8). When we see a documentary image we expect it to inform us (with the truth) and do it quickly. With photographic art, like a picture on a wall or in a gallery, we expect to take longer to look at it. Maybe to sit down and scrutinise it for a while.
A typical documentary image of the Sectarian murders may elicit responses of shock and disgust with the world; no one wants to see crime scenes and body bags. However, when the image is made less obvious, like Seawright’s image above, we can combine that shock with a slower reflection and really consider the wider picture of intolerance and its affect on ordinary people.
When we see something that is considered as ‘art’ we often look for deeper meanings so in this respect, defining Seawright’s images (or anyone’s’ images) as ‘art’ can open a wider discussion, raise wider issues and increase its meaning and scope.
Golden, R. (2011). Photojournalism. London: Carlton Books.
Paul Seawright. (2017). About. [online] Available at: http://www.paulseawright.com/paul-seawright/ [Accessed 13 Aug. 2017].
Vimeo. (2017). Catalyst: Paul Seawright. [online] Available at: https://vimeo.com/76940827%5BAccessed 13 Aug. 2017].