Documentary Photography

What would Proust do with Google Maps?

Screenshot, horses in cemetery

Screenshot from Google Maps via Jon Rafman

In David Sasake's blog post, "How to read Google Earth like Proust," he notes that Marcel Proust liked to read train timetables before bed.  According to Alain de Botton, "[T]he mere names of provincial train stations provided Proust's imagination with enough material to elaborate entire worlds, to picture domestic dramas in rural villages, shenanigans in local government, and life out in the fields."  Place names can float up in our subconsciousness, rekindling memories long forgotten like rabbits pulled out of a magician's hat.  So what would Proust make of Google Maps, and especially Google's massive, ongoing "Street View" function, where an ever-expanding swath of the globe is mapped, photographed, and instantly accessible?  What happens when you can view almost anyplace, anytime?

On representing "the city and its women": An interview with Susan B.A. Somers-Willett (Part I)

  via "Women of Troy," In Verse on vimeo

A few months ago, I happily stumbled upon and blogged about poet, scholar, and UT alum Susan B.A. Somers-Willett’s docu-poetry project “Women of Troy.” Recently,  Susan kindly took a break from her busy semester of writing and teaching to have coffee with me. We talked about multimedia poetics, issues of representation, the complications of collaboration, and the role of technology in the poetry classroom. Because the transcript of our interview is rather long, you can read Part I of our conversation below. I'll post the second installment next week. After that you'll also be able to find the interview in its entirety on our "Views" page.

The Impermanent Art of Graffiti

Banksy - Lascaux cave art

Graffiti by Banksy, Image via Holy Taco

As many of Banksy's works show, graffiti can convey social commentary. For example, the painting above, which shows a city worker sandblasting the famous Lascaux cave paintings just as he would modern day graffiti, wittily laments the blindness of local governments to public art.

History Written on the Body: Of Another Fashion

Young African American woman relaxes by a window

Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life Magazine, via Of Another Fashion

This week, I want to focus on a site I discovered when I was trying not to work. While browsing fashion blogs, I encountered Of Another Fashion, a digital archive of "the not quite hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of US women of color." In recuperating these women as alternative icons, the site emphasizes the complex historical intersections of public and private as they play out through clothing choices. It also provides needed role models to counter the often problematic and still white-dominated fashion industry.

Where Children Sleep - James Mollison's Diptychs

A child and the mattress on which he sleeps

All images by James Mollison, in Where Children Sleep, downloaded from

This photograph is part of James Mollison's book Where Children Sleep, which features 56 similar diptychs and is, as Mollison states, an attempt to engage with children's rights via an inclusive vision of the diversity of places children sleep. Mollison intended the book for children aged 9-13. He states that he wanted to photograph each child away from where he or she sleeps and in front of a neutral background to show them "as equals, just as children." The variety of sleeping places (the simple inability to write "bedrooms" is, itself, telling) are, Mollison notes, "inscribed with the children's material and cultural circumstances."

Reboot: Innocence and Exploitation: Kids with Cameras by Andi Gustavson

Image Credit:  Screenshot of viz. 

This past week, I had the privilege of listening to Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, Natasha Trethewey, and Kwame Dawes give a reading/ panel at AWP on their work that I have discussed in recent posts (here and here). The panel was moderated by VQR editor Ted Genoways and also included the poet Erika Meitner who is currently collaborating with a photographer on a project involving Detroit. I'm preparing a longer, related post to appear in the coming weeks, but, in the meantime, I've been thinking about issues of representation raised by those pieces and how the combined effect of literary and visual gazes transforms the stakes for subject, viewer, poet, photographer, and editor.  In that frame of mind, I'm re-booting Andi Gustavson's provacative post on the power dynamics of documentary films that feature children.  Writing about Born into Brothels, Andi is concerned with how "the viewer is invited into the film in a position of power." Surely, such a consideration can be extended to the "readers" of these projects. 

Documenting Need

peanuts on a newspaper

Stefen Chow, The Poverty Line

Earlier this week, I tweeted about Stefen Chow's The Poverty Line, a collection of photographs that documents what an individual can buy with a daily wage of 3.28 yuan (49 cents), and here I want to draw more attention to this project and another like it. In documenting the choices one might face with this daily wage (significantly below the World Bank's poverty line, $1.25/day), Chow dramatizes the plight of the poor while staying within the language of economics and exchange.

In Verse: Are Docu-poems the Poetry of the Future?

Video Credit: "Women of Troy," Susan B.A. Somers-Willett and Brenda Ann Kenneally, In Verse

H/T to Noël Radley for introducing me to this project

Last week I posted several video animations of poems read by their authors as part of a recent project by the Poetry Foundation. Today I’d like to draw your attention to In Verse, a series of “documentary poems” put together using the resources of Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated and Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR).

Beauty and the Bomb

close up of atomic bomb

Image: Peter Kuran, How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb, via The New York Times

Inspired by Eileen's post, I focus this week on a fascinating image. If it weren't for the title of this post, or the image's caption, you might not be able to identify this image. Even with context, I spent a moment staring, attempting to understand how this could be what its caption claimed it was: the beginning stages of a nuclear blast, captured by a special camera placed two miles away from ground zero. In its deviance from the typical mushroom cloud, the image argues for an even more complex understanding of the massive destruction that humans create.

Reboot: DADT and Public Sacrifice

cartoon of coffins

Image credit: Chan Lowe, The Lowe Down

The above cartoon, republished yesterday on the artist’s blog, makes a very effective argument against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The use of flag-draped coffins, signifying shared tragedy, suggests that dying for one’s country has little to do with sexual orientation and that is rather the work that an individual does—in this case, sacrificing his/her life for the United States—that matters.  In this kind of public sacrifice, the image suggests, everything individual is erased. However, this message seems more complicated when considered in relation to one of Tim Turner's earlier posts and the wider cache of meanings that these coffins suggest.

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