Exploitation or Empathetic Identification? Abigail Solomon-Godeau

“Photography conceived as social documentation was an instrument of that essentially middle-class attitude, both zealous and merely tolerant, both curious and indifferent, called humanism––which found slums the most enthralling of decors.”
(Susan Sontag, On Photography, p.56)

  • Middle class have the time to walk around taking pictures.
  • Predatory, they ‘shoot’ subjects.
  • Exploitive

Social documentarists are Baudelairean flaneurs, i.e., ‘gentlemen’ who go for a leisurely stroll to look at Paris––including its shadier parts––in a detached, curious manner.

  • Don’t get involved, just gaze.
  • Wealthy class
  • What does he bring to the people in the photographs? Reminds them of his position, exposed to the powerful.
  • Take and benefits himself.
  • Patronising pity.

Diane Arbus

  • Refers to subjects as ‘freaks’.
  • Lack of understanding and identification, doesn’t know what’s going on in their lives.
  • Subject to patronsing gaze.
  • Arbus perhaps related to the ‘freaks’ more than her own social class, she committed suicide.
Bronzino, Allegory with Venus and Cupid, (circa 1540-50)


  • Male painters creating images of the female body as they want to see it.
  • Unnatural position.
  • Male sexuality, not what it’s like to be a woman.

“Sontag’s critique of the touristic and anomic sensibility informing the work of Arbus […] turns, among other things, on the binary couple inside/outside.” (49)

‘Outsider’ photographers are detached, voyeuristic, alienated observers mainly in search of satisfaction of their curiosity (and that of those in a similar social position to their own)––this is ‘bad’.

  • Arbus and her view is always from the outside (their own curiosity).
  • People such as judges need to be an outsider to give a fair trial.

‘Insider’ photographers have ‘better’ a position of, “engagement, participation, and privileged knowledge.”

  • Ethically better situation.
  • Walter Benjamin, participated and reported back.

“one of the recurring tropes of photography criticism is an acknowledgement of the medium’s brute exteriority, its depthlessness, perceived as a kind of ontological limitation rendering it incapable of registering anything more than the accident of appearances.” (51)

  • Photography captures short moments.
  • No explanation.
  • Has limitations.

“is the implication of the photographer in the world he or she represents visually manifest in the pictures that are taken, and if so, how? Are the terms of reception […] in any way determined by the position––inside or out––of the photographer making the exposure? […] And what exactly is meant by the notion of “inside” in relation to [photography].” (51)

  • Is it possible to be an all-round ethical photographer?
  • Can you register that you care, know and understand the subjects?
  • Ed Ruscha and Dan Graham are both looking from an outside view.
  • Deliberately on the outside, didn’t want to be exploitive.
  • Ethically dubious, outsider zero.

Nan Goldin and Larry Clark,

“deploy a photographic rhetoric of lived experience, privileged knowledge, and [they] declare both rhetorically and visually the photographers’ personal stake in the substance of the representations.”

  • Involved with the people they photograph.
  • Insider, authentic, not for own gain.

Nan Goldin is a part of her work, in some images physically she is in them. She takes pictures of friends showing intimate relationships.
When comparing Arbus and Goldin’s titles of their images you can see the insider and outsider perspective. Arbus’ don’t have names and are very impersonal and Goldin’s are always first names, showing they are personal.

“People in my pictures say my camera is as much a part of being with me as any other aspect of knowing me. It’s as if my hand were a camera. If it were possible, I’d want no mechanism between me and the moment of photographing. The camera is as much a part of my everyday life as talking or eating or sex. The instance of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one to be invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history.” – Nan Goldin

“[T]he desire for transparency, for immediacy, the wish that the viewer might see the other with the photographer’s own eyes, is inevitably frustrated by the very mechanisms of the camera, which, despite the best intentions of the photographer, cannot penetrate beyond that which is simply, stupidly there.”

  • Questioning the viewers, worldwide.
  • Political, Goldin can’t stop homophobic viewers re-writing the meaning, being disgusted by it.
  • The camera acts as a barrier between us and reality.
  • Larry Clark; used to be one of the people he’s photographing. Insider, doesn’t see anything wrong with it.

Martha Rosler

  • Area known for drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Photographs the shop fronts and juxtaposes it with writing and words.
  • Trying not to objectify people.
Martha Rosler, Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, 1974-5

Jeff Wall













  • Evade directly being involved.
  • Recreates moments he witnesses with actors and actresses.

Lewis Hine


  • Highlighting poverty in the US.

Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado, Refugees in the Korem Camp, Ethiopia, 1984.
  • Beautiful pictures of suffering (aesthetic).

Richard Billingham


Richard Billingham, from Ray’s a Laugh, 1996/2000.

  • Photographed his father and family.
  • Inside view, greater sympathy, although it doesn’t appear so in his work.

Sally Mann


Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, 1989.

  • The sort of images you would have in a family album of your children (sometimes nude).
  • Should it be allowed publicity?
  • With children naked you don’t know the reactions of the viewers.

Gerhard Richter

  • One of the most influential painters.
  • Uncle was deemed mentally retarded and so got killed by Nazis (Uncle Rudi).
  • Intimate moments ( with Child).
  • Philosophical painter; can we be involved and understand, are you actually there?

Essential reading: Abigail Solomon-Godeau: Inside out (in the book The Everyday by Stephen Johnstone)


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