A3 Research: Insiders and Outsiders

“One is either a participant in unquestioned rites or a detached observer of them. To hold back midway from either of those positions is to temporise” (1: p.210)

Without specifically referring to insiders or outsiders Max Kozloff (1) draws a line between the two, arguing that the photographer is, or decides to be, in or out; the internal diarist of “their” group, or the objective documentarist looking in. The brief for assignment 3 (2: p.71) suggests that the border between insider and outsider is more porous, the photographer can start inside and stay there or begin outside and work their way in; a position that better reflects the dynamics of group relationships; we typically join social, as opposed to ethic, tribal, religious or family, groups rather than be born into them. The other exception being social groupings that form and evolve around the photographer as seen in Nan Goldin’s The Ballard of Sexual Dependency (3) which is often cited as an insider’s viewpoint.

A number of writers in the seventies and eighties began to argue that the value of photography could be judged on this basis, that the photograph taken by an outsider was aggressive, an act of attempted possession and voyeurism. Sontag took a particularly dim view of the work of Diane Arbus who she argued had freed herself from any responsibility for the “underworld” of people she photographed although it remains unclear what level of responsibility Sontag expects any artist to take for their subject. Sontag presents photographers as aggressors, stalking the world staving off boredom by capturing pictures of new things that fascinate them.

“The photographer is super tourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting natives and bringing back news of their doings and strange gear” (4: loc. 504)

Sontag’s view of photographers as predatory tourists is picked up by Martha Rosler in her 1981 essay In, Around and Afterthoughts (5) (ii) in which she coins the phrase “victim photography”, describing documentary photography as:

“Exoticism, tourism, voyeurism, psychologism and metaphysics, trophy hunting—and careerism” (5: p.178)

Abigail Solomon-Godeau looked backed at these essays in 1994 and developed the idea that outsiders objectify their subject regardless of their intention whereas the insider like Goldin is presenting the subject, herself and her group, in the way they wish to be seen. (6: p.126). Critics regularly return to the argument that outsiders are at worst predators and at best an organ of the establishment; whether it is Sontag’s view that photography violates the subject by turning them into “objects that can be symbolically possessed” (4: loc.188);  Solomon-Godeau’s argument that documentary photography is “a double act of subjugation” where the subject is first victimised by society and then by the “regime of the image”; or, Rosler’s perception, from the far left, that

“Reformist documentary …. represented an argument within a class about the need to give a little in order to mollify the dangerous classes below.” (5: p.177)

In her Little History of Photography Criticism which acts as an introduction to The Cruel Radiance (7) Susie Linfield concludes that the acerbic view of these late twentieth-century writers reflects their underlying dislike of photography. The theatre critic usually, if not always, loves plays; the fine art critic admires painters and sculptors, the literary critic reads for pleasure so one wonders why photography has attracted the attention of such a long list of critical writers from Walter Benjamin to Sontag and Barthes who express their hostile disapproval of the medium and who, in Linfield’s view, have significantly and negatively influenced contemporary photography criticism by setting an agenda where it became fashionable, if not mandatory to take an ethical stance that included:

“A relentless hostility to modernist photography and to any belief in the photographer’s authenticity, creativity, or unique subjectivity.” (7: p.7)

The ideas of these late twentieth century critics, who other than Rosler, are neither photographers nor even full time photography critics, have become acquired wisdom, an established fact, that insiders provide a balanced, informative and honest and valuable view of their world that cannot be matched by the outsider. It would be more truthful to say that the insider has an unique perspective and “a pass to all areas” that the outsider can never have; their projects combine the not normally seen with an autobiographical context and the art world loves nothing better than for the artist to bare their soul. If we accuse the outsider of being a voyeur in the first person the success of Goldin’s work (reviewed here), Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh (8) (reviewed here) and Larry Clark’s confessional soft porn might be partly due to voyeurism in the second person; Goldin was not voyeuristic but perhaps we are for looking at her work.

Photography suffers and benefits from the interest it generates outside of its own circle. The fact that great writers such as Sontag, John Berger and Geoff Dyer invest their intellect and communication skills in writing about the medium is overwhelmingly positive. We may or may not agree with their views but they are well thought through, coherently presented and should offer the starting point for debate but too often it appears that an opinion is elevated to became a law of photography, on a par with the laws of physics, purely because Barthes or Sontag expressed it rather than it becoming the opening statement in a debate. Photography, or at least the understanding of photography, suffers from the lack of response to these critics arguments from equally brilliant minds or great communicators.

To return to the topic at hand insider photography is potentially exciting, revealing and descriptive of social groups that outsiders can never experience; young photographers can be inspired by Goldin and Billingham to use photography to help understand their world and open it up to outsiders to also gain insight and a greater knowledge of the human condition. However, let us not argue the comparative merits of the occasional true insider and the huge body of outsider work.

Notes on Text

(i) I am only here looking at Sontag and Rosler’s views that I perceive relate to insiders and outsiders. I have previously discussed Rosler’s wider views on the ineffectiveness of documentary photography and her concerns regarding victim photography. (here) Rosler directs her criticism at the social documentarists arguing that they did no more than moralise whilst providing support to the established order of class and distribution of wealth. One assumes that she is calling for a more revolutionary approach to this genre of photography, although it is not clear from her essay how these new-age revolutionaries would approach their subject matter.



(1) Kozloff, Max (2007) The Theatre of the Face. London & NewYork: Phaidon

(2) Boothroyd, Sharon and Roberts, Keith (2016) Identity and Place. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

(3) Goldin, Nan (1986) The Ballard of Sexual Dependency. 2012 re-Issue edition. New York: Aperture

(4) Sontag, Susan (1971) On Photography: Kindle version of the 1978 Penguin edition. London: Penguin Books

(6) le Grange, Ashley. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Kindle edition. Oxford: Focal Press

(7) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

(8) Billingham, Richard (1996) Ray’s a Laugh: Errata Edition Books on Books (2014) New York: Errata Editions


(5) Rosler, Martha (1981) In, Around and Afterthoughs (on documentary photography) (accessed 2014 at the Everyday Archive) – http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf

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