Witnesses and voyeurs

As a witness you appear to care, you keep your hands clean, your conscience clear, and make a quiet profit on the pictures and the text. But there can be a fine line between the measured distance of a witness and a the compromised emotionalism of a voyeur.

Does writing do any good? Does documentary photography do any good? More specifically,  does the kind of writing and photography that examines the lives of people less fortunate than the writer or photographer change those lives  for the better?
Anyone with an ordinary share of fellow feeling who has ever interviewed or taken a picture of, say, a beggar in London or a flood victim in Bangladesh has asked this question of him or herself, and sometimes the moral answer that marches upright back – oh yes, I am doing good – is no more than a desperate attempt at conscience salving, there to excuse the original intrusion and the essay, the book, or the exhibition that might profitably follow, usually at some distance, socially and/or geographically, from the intruded-upon, the people who are portrayed. Documentarists like to describe their role using the dignified word ‘witness’, but, tilting your wine glass at a launch party in a publishing house or a gallery and tut-tutting half-heartedly at pictures from a refugee camp, you may be forgiven for wondering if there is any real difference between witnesses and voyeurs. Nor, these days, do many of them have much truck with Marx’s dictum of 1845: ‘ the philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. ‘

Ian Jack, Introduction, Granta: Bad Company


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