Face on: Photography as social exchange

Face on: Photography as social exchange

This is an excellent book, recommended by my tutor. Joanna Lowery’s contribution ‘Negotiating Power’ in ‘Face on: photography as social exchange,’ talks about dialogical and monological relationships in photography (Durden, Richardson, 2000). She refers to the work of Bakhtin and his concept of ‘monological’ and ‘dialogical’ text which is theoretically very  helpful (Bakhtin, 1981). It is Steve Edwards (Edwards, 1990) who has applied these ideas to photographical relations where the studio “could be seen as a monological site par excellence, in contrast with those sites outside the studio where the photographer may have less authority and may have to be more responsive to the self-presentation of the subject:” the dialogical (Page 13, Durden, Richardson, 2000).

I am working on three pieces of work;

  • A2: Studio and environmental portraits of ‘anti-superheroes’ – recruiting for 5 weeks time
  • A3: A window into drug user recovery – negotiated access for 2 weeks time
  • A4: ‘A near death experience’ – thinking and recruitment for interview and video next week then video and stills again three weeks after that

All of these are relational with power differentials. 

A2: Studio and environmental portraits of ‘anti-superheroes.’ This immediately provokes that monological (studio) and dialogical (subjects work or other place). This area needs a bit more thought. Perhaps this relationship is not binary anyway. How much do I want to master the studio images and how much will they answer me back with their views and input?

A3: A window into drug user recovery. What is my realtionship with and feelings about the service users and leaders I will be working with? Are they exploitative because I am doing this for my degree and the images will be used as advertising for the company that employs the service personnel. I could also be seen as a ‘powerful’ or ‘high status’ person, as a prescribing doctor, as a former director and current opiate substitute medication prescriber. On the flip side I am used to working with drug users with social, mental and emotional problems. I only have an inkling about what this group does. Feedback from the service users in my GP practice say that we treat drug users with respect and listen (Our CQC assessment in March 2016 rated us as outstanding in this area). I may be able to hang back in this new group and listen more than speak but others will have a different perspective on me – am I there to ‘check up on them’ or make ‘judgements’ about their lives?  

As far as possible I want to help people to tell their story about recovery and I think that to be successful it needs to be a dialogical relationship. Maybe logging ambivalent in my relationships, like Laurie Anderson might be appropriate (Page 11, Durden, Richardson, 2000). After I presented my idea to the group leader Michelle I was struck by her story which including trying to obtain custody of her children now that she has recovered from using drugs. There is a story here not just about the service users but those that provide the service, including me. Maybe there will be more than one story in stepping through this window?

A4: A near death experience. This is someone who I know well but there will still be the tension of what I want to say and what they will say, but this is clearly more dialogical in nature.

Mark Wurden’ chapter ‘Empathy and Engagement: The subjective documentary’ discusses the Walker Evans and James Agee’s images and text (Agee, Evans, 1941).Evans is seen as an “ethical” photographer as he appears to allow the person photographed their own stance and stare, which contrast with other perhaps ‘exploitative’ images of ‘depression photography.’ Agee’s text “represents a much more reflective and embodied documentary” where he gives a subjective account of his own experience relating to ‘poor people’ (he stayed overnight with one family) and his feelings about them. Burden suggests that ‘Let us now praise famous men’ “helps us to acknowledge the need for a documentary which is more empathetic, subjective, engaged.” Things are not that simple, as Wurden acknowledges, and as Paula Rabinowitz makes clear there is a problematic aesthetic where the language is paternalistic, romanticised and reflective of the middle class that Evans and Agee belonged to (Rabinowitz, 1994).

NOTE: Alfredo Jaar and his images ‘Four times Nguyen.’ Repetition of these images encourages not to be dismissive of this refugee (we’ve seen those photos before haven’t we?) but to look at the individual pictures and engage with the person present.



Ed Mark Durden and Craig Richardson. (2000). ‘Face on: photography as social exchange.’ London, Black Dog Publishing Ltd.

Bakhtin, M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination Austin, Texas, University of Texas.

Edwards, S. (1990). “The Machine’s Dialogue.” Oxford Art Journal, Oxford University Press 13: 63-76.

James Agee, Walker Evans. (1941). Let us now praise famous men. Boston, Houghton Miffin Company.

Rabinowitz, P. (1994). They must be represented: the politics of documentary. London, Verso.