In the autumn of 2009, British photographer Stuart Franklin purchased a lakeside cabin in Otrøya, a remote and sparsely populated island off the western coast of Norway. Having recently retired from his position as president of the Magnum Photos, he planned to take a break from his busy schedule and do some nature-based work in seclusion there. Up until that point in his career, Franklin had covered Sri Lanka’s civil war, the 1984-1985 Sudanese famine, and the Nigerian 1983 exodus, among other humanitarian crises.

Soon after he began the project, Franklin found himself facing some questions: was it possible, he wondered, to take an expressive landscape photograph? If not, how different could his shots be from those of another photographer? Were landscape photographs simply “quotations” from surroundings? If so, how could he put something of himself into his work? For weeks, he swung between between believing in objectivity and owning his subjectivity. Then he had a revelation.

“I suddenly understood,” Franklin writes in the afterword to his Narcissus, the photobook that emerged from Otrøya, “[that I was] documenting an experience of place rather than…a merely scenic view.”

That changed the way Franklin thought about visual documentation. He was no longer satisfied with the arbitrary barriers between “objective” photojournalism and “subjective” art photography. He began to sense that the urge to capture one’s surroundings—what he calls “the documentary impulse”—emerged from a complex interaction between internal psychology and external stimuli: an interaction no one really understood but everyone took for granted. In short, Franklin realized that there is a metaphysics—not just a physics—that governs sight.

Seven years later, Franklin has published The Documentary Impulse. Part philosophical enquiry, part art history, part political tract, and part memoir, The Documentary Impulse is divided into eight sections, each exploring a different aspect of the medium—visual poetry, manipulation, war photography, and so forth—in an attempt to understand, as Franklin puts it, our “passion to record the moments we experience and [our] wish to preserve the things we witness.”

Franklin casts an unclouded eye over the history of photography, and entertains no illusions about the colonial impulses that drove so many of its early practitioners. His discussion of photojournalism, a practice that he believes is often shaped by the photographer’s personal guilt, is similarly cutting. Yet (unlike, say, early Sontag) Franklin is a firm believer in the moral and artistic importance of his medium. He just wants to better understand how it works.

It’s worth mentioning that Franklin himself took one of the twentieth century’s most famous photographs. In May of 1989, Magnum sent him to Beijing to follow the mounting political tension focused around the student-led protest movement in Tiananmen Square. By early June, the square had been cleared of all civilians and converted into a militarized zone. But lying prone on the balcony of his hotel, Franklin captured a photograph of a thin man with shopping bags blocking a line of giant army tanks all by himself. The “Tank Man” image, as it came to be known, ended up on the front-page of countless international newspapers (and, subsequently, textbooks)—a potent symbol of humankind’s desire for freedom. Except that, as Franklin explains in the few pages he gives the photo in The Documentary Impulse, Tiananmen wasn’t ever about Western-style democracy—it was a Confucian protest against corruption. “Isn’t the notion of the iconic photograph,” Franklin asks, “a rather redundant modernist conceit in a postmodern age?” This remarkable mix of seriousness and humility is typical of his work across visual and textual media.

Franklin spoke with me over Skype from his London apartment last month.

Ratik Asokan for Guernica

We create these walls between fact and fiction, but often the difference between the two is as little as that between a real name and a pseudonym.

Guernica: Early in your book, you write: “In the documentary impulse, two species of ‘fact’ exist side by side: one is coolly objective and the other is fraught, diverse and emotive; one figurative, the other abstract; one prosaic, the other poetic; one factual, the other romantic.” It’s commonly accepted that there are two classes of photography: photojournalism, and art photography. But you seem to be tearing down the wall between those two.

Stuart Franklin: We create these walls between fact and fiction, but often the difference between the two is as little as that between a real name and a pseudonym. So I’m not sure about those walls—certainly not in the realm of visual arts. Regarding photography, there’s always been this conceit—because photography can be thought of as a trace of reality—that it’s a true or nonfictional medium. Painting, by contrast, was somehow false. But these simple binaries are complicated when you consider the ideas of someone like John Ruskin, who in the latter part of the nineteenth century was going, “Well, wait a minute, what about a moral truth? What about the truth of impression? Is the material truth all that matters?” This question becomes particularly important when you consider photography, because it turns into, “Who is doing the documenting here? Is it me or is it this machine called the camera?”

We have to probe this question deeply. Because if the answer is “me” then we have to go back to Monet—him, out there with his cataracts, painting water lilies, and going, “Well, the honest way of recording those water lilies if I’m a documenter as ‘me,’ is through my cataracts.”

Guernica: Most people believe that photojournalists simply present us with slices of reality. But you write, in the context of Dorothea Lange’s photographs, “Often the captured moment is more a projection of the photographer’s own guilt, sorrow or moment of reflection than it is a typical instant in the subject’s life.” This makes it sound as if even news images aren’t really about news events but about the photographers.

Stuart Franklin: The dialectical problem between an innate subjectivity and fact is terribly central to the world of documentary photography. And yet I don’t feel like it has ever been unpacked—Sontag took a crack at it, at least in her first iteration, On Photography. We have this ability to deploy a kind of rhetoric within the language of photojournalism, and that rhetoric involves the selection of a moment. That process of selection could entail waiting for somebody to put their head in their hands, as with Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, or it could entail, as with her more complex photograph of the pea-pickers lining up to have their produce weighed, waiting for an event that might help explain a particular socio-economic phenomenon. The former decision is less about explaining an event and more about projecting one’s own feelings—of guilt, in Lange’s case. And that projection is hugely common. Not only in photojournalism, but also in portraiture.

Which isn’t to say that I’m skeptical of photojournalism. I love photojournalism. And in The Documentary Impulse, I’m out to defend photojournalism—not just in the abstract, but in practice; that is, to defend photojournalists. I just want to understand what it is that we do.

Guernica: At another point in your book, you contrast the French photographer Gilles Caron’s unsentimental yet respectful photograph of the Biafra conflict with Don McCullin’s, which had the sex appeal of destruction. Let me ask a cynical question: if our goal were to raise awareness about Biafra, wouldn’t McCullin’s photographs shock-and-awe style be more effective?

Stuart Franklin: The situation is more complex than that. In truth, there were two Gilles Carons. There was the poetic Gilles Caron who tried to find his own voice within photography—that’s the Gilles Caron who took those quiet, moving photographs in Biafra, and the one his biographer Michel Poivert tried to excavate. And then there’s the pragmatic who had just founded the news agency Gamma with Raymond Depardon, and who was very keen to please the magazines, to get the story out.

So Caron took an awful lot of pictures that were very similar to Don McCullin’s: frontal and explicit photographs of the famine. What I was trying to get was Caron’s own personal way of seeing. I think—and I remember doing this when I was a Sygma photographer in particular—you try to find your own voice as a photographer, within whatever it is you’re engaged with. But at the same time, you’re deeply aware of the role those photographs will play in making a difference.

Guernica: But that still begs the question: what sort of photojournalism is better? Let me mention a current example: the recent photograph of the Syrian boy washed up on the beach doesn’t tell us much about the geopolitics of the region—he could have been the victim of a misguided fishing expedition, and the photograph would have been the same. Yet it’s one of the most important photographs to emerge in the past year.

Stuart Franklin: Why do you think it’s one of the most important photographs?

A single event can carry so much weight. And that is extraordinary. And you can’t predict where that will come from.

Guernica: Pragmatic reasons. You yourself write about how moved David Cameron was by the photograph, how it prompted the German public to make welcome banners for refugees and so forth.

Stuart Franklin: Perhaps I overstated the case. There was as big a reaction after the revelations about Assad’s chemical weapons. Nevertheless, that photograph did strike a singular chord. Which leads us to a larger fact: we don’t understand why certain photographs create such an upheaval in one’s soul. You look at them and go, “Oh my gosh.” And that doesn’t happen with television. It’s unique to photography. Photographs are unique in that they are a frame abstracted out of reality, out of, in this case, a civil war. A single event can carry so much weight. And that is extraordinary. And you can’t predict where that will come from. It could come from a portrait, as with Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” It’s very hard to know.

Guernica: But weren’t you are critical of Lange’s photograph because it doesn’t really tell us enough about the migrant’s economic situation?

Stuart Franklin: In the book that Lange produced with her husband, Paul Taylor, An American Exodus, which is an amazing book, there is a sense of process. There is a sense of how “A” came to become “B.” How the mechanization of agriculture, paired with drought, paired with economic depression, made farmers leave their family farms, and with that the ownership they had over their lives, and move to California’s Imperial Valley where they became a sort of lumpenproletariat, where they had to pick peas to be measured by the bucket. Taylor’s text was able to explain to us the process—some of the process, certainly—of what was going on in North America in the 1930s. The difficulty with the single image of the migrant mother, as interesting a picture as it is, is that it doesn’t really tell us much about anything. It doesn’t even tell us much about her family. That’s why I mention it as part of my chapter that problematizes the idea of the “iconic image.”

Guernica: I suspect that Sontag would approve of that chapter, especially when you contrast photography with film, claiming that while “every sentence, every image, every scene” in a film contributes to its argument, “photographs float. They remain untethered to anything solid unless placed with a text explaining their context.” The importance of placing photographs beside text is one of the salient arguments of your book.

Stuart Franklin: It’s certainly important to include text beside documentary photographs. Furthermore, it’s important to include text in a way that’s useful and accessible. I talk about Eugene Richard’s Cocaine True Cocaine Blue and the very important essay by the doctor Stephen Nicholas that’s relegated to the back of that book. Because the text is at the back, we effectively lose the important context it provides.

There are some essays that we can do as photographers that don’t require text at all. That are some stories that can be given a purely visual treatment—I did one called Hotel Afrique, about the world of elite hotels in Africa. But if you’re dealing with a complex issue like why people are leaving their farms in 1936, it’s really important to understand the context.

Without the words, it’s simply a beautiful photograph of sand flats. With the caption, it’s something entirely else.

Guernica: Do you think that the text creates what Barthes calls a “punctum”—that crucial detail that transforms a photograph from an object of general interest into a thing that wounds us?

Stuart Franklin: [Laughs] A punctum. Here’s a very good example of text creating a punctum: there’s a beautiful landscape by Edward Burtynsky of some marbled, indigo, ochre colors in a clearing near the wood. Below this beautiful photograph you read its caption: “Uranium Tailings.” That’s a punctum. Without the words, it’s simply a beautiful photograph of sand flats. With the caption, it’s something entirely else.

Guernica: You hold a PhD in geography, alongside a BA in photography. How do you think the discipline of geography has informed your photography practice?

Stuart Franklin: I’m quite capable and I quite enjoy doing complex photojournalistic stories—I’ve just done one on refugees in South Africa. But I’m also interested in landscape. I’m not sure why, but I am. I’m interested in the layers of landscape: not just the rural landscape but also the urban landscape. I’m also interested in the relationship between nature and society; that’s certainly one of the things that connects my geographical research with my photographic practice. I wrote my DPhil at Oxford about nature and society, but more about the politics of nature. The title of my thesis was “Bialowieza Forest: Social Function and Social Power.”

When I began to work on my first book, A Time of Trees, in 1997, I had just finished studying geography for three years. I had been trying to understand what “environmentalism” meant. And I couldn’t really understand that until I understood the complex relationship that humans have with the rest of the planet. In my book, I decided to use the tree as a metaphor for that relationship.

I also taught for a bit at Oxford on African societies in transition, filling in for a tutor on sabbatical. That was where I really started to understand about issues of representation in Africa.

Guernica: So the camera gave you a tangible understanding of “environmentalism.”

Stuart Franklin: Yes. Environmentalism is a personal thing—but it’s also a planetary thing. It’s about making deep connections. But it’s also about recognizing the very human connection between species diversification and ourselves. I remember being in Sarawak, and a couple of scientists had discovered a tree that they believed had a cancer cure in it. When they returned to forests to proceed with the work and get their patents, they discovered that the tree had been chopped. That taught me, in a visceral way, that every tree is a different species.

Guernica: Do you learn through your camera?

Stuart Franklin: The great and late Mary Ellen Mark thought of her camera as a passport. It is—not just in the simplistic sense that it carries you across the border, but in the way that it urges you to explore. Wayne Miller, when he was working on Chicago Southside, wrote about his camera leading him to understand different parts of the cities and different people’s lives and to develop empathy through that.

Guernica: Is that what drove you to be a photographer in the first place?

Stuart Franklin: I was always interested in drawing and painting. I enrolled in college to study painting. But I didn’t have any livelihood when I graduated. My mother died very young, and I didn’t have any home, so I had to find a way to earn a living. It seemed to me that photography—to the great disappointment, I have to say, of my painting teacher—could offer that. So I went and did a degree in photography, and then after that I could go out and get paid for work. For portraits, things like that. I didn’t even own a camera at that time. I had to borrow one from my tutor for my first two assignments.

In retrospect, I’m happy I made that decision. I love photographing. I love the experience of being around all the things that surround you when you go out to do work.

Guernica: Did you also read a lot growing up? I was rather amazed by the number of novelists and critics you reference in this book.

Stuart Franklin: I was an only child. After my mother died, I lived with relatives. Reading was a means of escaping into other worlds, as photography, much later, was to become.

Reading is always a way of forming a bond with other people. I’m not very good at socializing—I quite like spending time alone—so reading is a way of engaging quite deeply with the way other people think. Quite often when you meet other people socially you don’t get to have a conversation of any depth. You end up talking about how well or how badly someone is doing at school or something of that sort. Questions like, “What we are,” “Who we are,” “Where are we going,” you get those from literature and from people that spend some time thinking. People like Camus thought a lot, and expressed a lot of his thoughts in novel form. In fiction. If you read his fiction, it’s about freedom, it’s about his notion of freedom. As humans, we need to question all these notions. What does freedom mean for us? What are our responsibilities? It takes one-250th of a second to take a photograph. So I have the whole of the rest of that second—and of that day—to think.

Guernica: Freedom is also an idea you explore in The Documentary Impulse, particularly in your discussion of the Czech photographer Josef Sudek, whose work, you write, “is humanistic in every sense of an evolving idea.”

Stuart Franklin: That discussion came out of an essay I wrote for Harper’s on humanistic photography. My essay asked the question: is humanistic photography contingent on a human subject? And that lead me to wonder what “humanistic” photography really is. I mean, it’s a very young medium in a way, photography. And a lot of ideas have been developed quite simplistically, often off the back of one person’s practice. Eugene Smith’s practice, for example. And I started to look at Sudek, and I looked at his archive, and what I came to realize is that it was deeply human. I had read in a footnote from John Banville’s book, Prague Pictures, that Cartier-Bresson didn’t think Sudek’s work was human enough. That footnote sort of flicked a switch me. I thought, “Wait a minute, that’s not right.”

It is all about untying a knot in our heart, something that troubles us, inside us, something that urges us to explore.

Just looking at Sudek’s pictures of the apple tree in his garden, and the way he connected the disfigurement of this tree with his own physical disfigurement, is so moving. It might only be a tree he’s photographing, but the work itself is emancipatory in its bid for freedom. Sudek has also written—I don’t know if I put this in my book—that every time he loses a friend, they’re not completely gone, because he finds them in trees. That totally resonates with what I felt when I was doing the Narcissus project. I actually have my own tree that I’ve photographed more times than Sudek photographed his apple tree. Mine is a willow tree.

Any discussion of thinking through seeing takes me back to Merleau Ponty [and] these people who are really trying to understand how perception works. Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, his notion that we see the world through the “spectacles” of memory, is critical to my thinking. His observations, and to some degree Sartre’s, are still deep in my soul. Because it is all about, as I write right at the end of The Documentary Impulse, untying a knot in our heart, something inside us that troubles us, something that urges us to explore. Which is why I talk about documentary, to some degree, as being therapy.

The Phenomenology of Perception also leads us to the opposite question: “Why do certain photographs stick?” Why, for example, does Guy Tillim’s picture, which I include, of three Congolese typists in an office, why—to me, anyway—is that picture so durable? Why does it work on me?

Guernica: You use “work” in the way John Berger does: The artwork is not simply an object. It has to also do work.

Stuart Franklin: Right. When Tolstoy was writing about art, he was, to some degree, writing about literature. And he believed that art needs to “infect us.” In fact, I drilled into that word when I met a fluent Russian speaker in Paris recently. Apparently it carries the same meaning in Russian. He meant that it’s got to get inside us. When you read, say, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles—since I was talking about that earlier—it gets inside you. The protagonists get inside you. Photographs should do that as well. Art should do that. I think art should move us.

I don’t know if I write about this or not—I can’t remember—but there seems to me two philosophical reasons for art to exist. One is the Schopenhauerian idea of calming the world, putting us at peace. Which is what music and painting was all about. And there’s the Tolstoyan idea that the point of art is to create understanding, to create empathy, to create a universal brotherhood. You’ll find that idea in What is Art the book he wrote very late in his life, when he had returned to embrace the church. It’s very much based in his re-engagement with Christianity. Not that he was thinking about Christianity as a singular religion.

Photography for me has been tremendously good, because I’m not a very sociable person. I’m happy reading or sitting in the library or going for walks. So photography has brought me in contact with people and made me understand people in a way that I probably wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been a photographer. And so I’m grateful for that, really. Because I think it’s terribly important to reach out and understand all the different types of life and the different types of challenges that are present around the world. And I think the more people who can do that the better our planet will probably be.

Guernica: These are questions of serious philosophical depth. But—and this is what I find so fascinating—wasn’t it a more prosaic, real-world problem that provoked the book? Didn’t you begin writing The Documentary Impulse after learning that a big news agency fired a good many of its photojournalists?

Stuart Franklin: It’s quite difficult to write about photography as a photographer. A lot of better photographers than me have declined to do it. Robert Frank was asked to do some writing about photography and said, “instead of being an expert or a critic, I want to be myself.” The world of photography is very self-aware. Everybody is always looking around. So it’s quite difficult to stand up with a megaphone and declare, “This is what I think.” As a reasonably shy person, I found it difficult to do that.

But I felt quite strongly about the things I felt and needed to put them down. One of the reasons I wanted to write The Documentary Impulse was because I felt that photojournalism was being relegated—in the UK at least—to a sort of subaltern status. Photographs are being used as little more than illustrations of text instead of being respected as a language in their own right. Photography was increasingly being seen as something outside the art world. As a sort of illustration. They just fired the director of photography at the Sunday Times Magazine—that’s where everyone went with their photo essays in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. It was the place to get published. It is an issue. And I feel it. There’s no budget. The budget-holders are very often people who’ve been to the professional colleges where art is not taught. So art as a part of education is something that’s missing—since Thatcher’s day, anyway.

Guernica: You’re also troubled by other traits of the journalism world. Using your own photo of the “Tank Man” as a case study, you discuss how newspapers can shape the reception of photographs, and the commemoration—our memory—of an event.

Stuart Franklin: I also do that in context of Baghdad. Gary Knight, in one part of the book, discusses how Newsweek wanted to sell the idea of America liberating Baghdad, how they used the photograph of the toppling of the Firdos Square’s Saddam Hussein statue to sell this idea that America had liberated Baghdad, à la General Patton in Paris. But Knight is sitting in the city and it’s not being liberated at all. The Iraqis certainly didn’t think it was a liberation.

The media affects how stories are told. I summarize toward the end of the book that there is a danger in our modern practice of using embedded journalism. As there is less and less money available for journalism to uphold its independence, there is a temptation for people to take short cuts. If this army or that army or this corporation is willing to pay for your flight or your accommodation, then it’s much more difficult to tell what the real story might be. I do have a concern about that.

The public are losing touch with the great stuff that’s being done in photography.

Guernica: That’s even more problematic when publications run unattributed and stock photographs.

Stuart Franklin: Newspaper photographs nowadays are highly tautologous. You’ll have an article about, say, stopping the war. And the photograph that will be used is literally a poster that reads “Stop The War.” Or you’ll have a story about a cash crisis in Barcelona, and the only picture you’ll see is an ATM in Barcelona.

The problem is actually systemic. On the one hand, you’ll have a picture of a soda can to “illustrate” an article about the dangers of sugary drinks. On the other hand, anything that’s reasonable in documentary photography is snapped up by the art world and we never see it. Guy Tillim’s pictures have been purchased by the Tate but they aren’t exhibited to the general public. There’s an awful lot of work being done that no one ever sees, or that is only seen in the gallery world. I feel that the public are losing touch with the great stuff that’s being done in photography.

Perhaps I’m just talking about the photography world in Britain—because things are quite different in the US. They’ve just built the big new SFMOMA, which will have the biggest photography collection in America. New York has the ICP. The New York Times has just rebooted itself with a big investment in photography. There’s a strong recognition of the historic role that photography has played in breaking the silence, building advocacy on issues like apartheid and mental asylums.

So in the US, you are in a completely different world. I have a huge respect for the dedication that many people have, on the other side of the Atlantic, to photography. You can count them on one hand here. There’s less respect for a Magnum photographer in Britain than there is in America. It’s a much more postmodern culture here.

Guernica: Do you think that the postmodern devaluation of photography has anything to do with the rise of social media? Everyone takes photographs—and I’m playing devil’s advocate here—so professional photographs aren’t impressive any more?

Stuart Franklin: Well, people from the “me” generation use photography to show off what they are doing, to show the world themselves and their friends. Those sort of diarized accounts have always been there. But the phenomena of making those diaries public is new, isn’t it? It can also be incredibly interesting. But more often than not it doesn’t make that transition. What people that are professionals in the art world—both in literature and the other arts—always try to do is to recognize the feasibility of making the transition from the particular to the general—to make the transition from the portrait of one postman—to take Van Gogh, for example, to something that is every postman. That synecdotal transition that most selfies don’t make. But we who live in this world, and not simply in our private realities, understand that that’s the transition our art has to make.

Guernica: But couldn’t there also be benefits from the “me” generation’s photo habits? Wouldn’t a culture that’s taking photographs all the time be a lot more sensitive to the technical challenges and achievements of art photography?

Stuart Franklin: I think, oddly, that the world of the amateur is quite self-contained, and it depends on “likes” from other amateurs to perpetuate itself. Of course an awful lot of my colleagues are involved with Instagram—they get likes and dislikes, maybe just likes, I don’t know—but I think that it’s far less self-contained, the world I work in. It goes off in different directions, and is dependent on responses different from a tick or a like or whatever. Most importantly, we don’t tend to deal in single photographs. Social media’s currency is the single photograph. Whereas, every time I look at a photograph, I look at twenty or thirty photographs. I’m looking for a narrative. And that’s a different kind of construct. If you’re a poet and you put a line from your poem online, “The trees bending over gracefully,” or something, you can get a tick. But that has nothing to do with your longer poem.

Guernica: In The Documentary Impulse, you write: “The visual language has fragmented over time so that, as in the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, we are left so disconnected as to be almost unable to understand each other’s language.” Is our perception being scrambled by the ubiquity of photographs?

Stuart Franklin: I don’t think so. I think it’s a different thing, an older thing. Think, for example, of painting. Late in the nineteenth century, painting started getting very fragmented. Going into the twentieth century we have Cubism, Expressionism, Post-expressionism. If you read accounts of people who went to look at those paintings at that time, they would go, “I don’t understand this. What is this? My six-year-old could have done this.” There was a big shock for people—the general public I mean—going to art galleries and suddenly not being able to understand what they’re looking at. Thirty, forty, fifty years earlier, they would pretty well have expected—and gotten—some sort of figurative solution to the painting.

In the same way, photography, for me, has fragmented. You do have people doing bodies of work—often with found photographs—that are quite hard to understand unless you got a very sophisticated visual history behind you. But there are different camps. Photographers will align themselves behind different types of practice. There’s a camp behind what the World Press stands up for in Amsterdam—a kind of absolute factual photojournalism. But then you have people like Gregory Crewdson who takes a painterly approach to his work. Or Gauri Gill having a Maharashtrian artist actually draw Warli designs over her photographs.

I read accounts of photographers working right at the beginning of the twentieth century, trying to develop film in their suitcase—all these wonderful, terrible, glorious stories.

Guernica: These are recent developments. But one of my favorite aspects of The Documentary Impulse is how your central inquiry leads you to basically write a Gombrich-style history of photography. What was that experience like? Was the history something you already knew, or was there research?

Stuart Franklin: I was already versed in the history of photography. I studied it in college. And I teach it from time to time. My book was always about the impulse to photograph. The historical inquiry, therefore, was focused around the pitfalls and obstacles faced by people who wanted to take photographs. In the wet plate period, for example, the challenge was having to run around with a damp, stinking, wet plate! Cleaning the inside of the camera—I mean, it was just a mess. I read accounts of photographers working right at the beginning of the twentieth century, trying to develop film in their suitcase—all these wonderful, terrible, glorious stories.

The obstacles haven’t gone away. My current project was shot on film, and because of that I’ve spent my entire day removing dust-specks from negatives. You wouldn’t have to do that on digital because you don’t get dust on the scanner. I say to myself, “Why am I doing this all day?” I could have just bought a digital camera and I wouldn’t have to remove dust-specks ever again. But when you move closer to a film image, it has a real truth to it. And I really like that.

Guernica: Alongside the pitfalls of process, you’re also very interested in the pitfalls of ideologies. I’m thinking about the long chapter about colonial photography, for example.

Stuart Franklin: It was important to place things within their historical context. There was a time, right up until the end of the Second World War and beyond, when white people in Europe thought that they basically owned the world and that everybody else was a sort of servant, or a curiosity, or whatever. And that informed 99 percent of the photographic practice that was done. Without being able to address that, I felt I would have failed in my attempt to explain what the urge to document is.

Guernica: It seems to me that The Documentary Impulse’s key insight is that good photographs hold our attention because they suggest complex and intimate narratives.

Stuart Franklin: Good photographs aren’t just complex. They are enigmatic. Images are beguiling. And the way they play into our psychology, into our visual cortex, is something we still don’t understand. At a few places in the book I basically say, “Please don’t let this glorious thing die because we don’t understand how it works.” We don’t understand what photography is doing. We don’t understand the power of its rhetoric. We don’t understand why the Provoke photographers showed Tokyo city as a ghastly and alien city when it was really going through this period of mega-capitalist growth. It’s a very, very, very powerful force, the photograph. People ask me why it has such an ability to captivate us. And I just don’t know.

We sort of understand how painkillers work. You take one, and it reduces your headache. We don’t understand how photographs work. And that, to me, is an essential problem as a practitioner.

Ratik Asokan

Ratik Asokan is a freelance writer based in New York. He writes about literature, film, and photography.

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