Mitch Epstein, ‘Biloxi, Mississippi 2005’ 2005
Mitch Epstein
Biloxi, Mississippi 2005 2005
© Mitch Epstein/Black River Productions, Ltd.

This five-room display explores the ways in which five contemporary artists have used the camera to explore, extend and question the power of photography as a documentary medium.It includes recent work by Luc Delahaye, Mitch Epstein, Guy Tillim and Akram Zaatari, as well as two important earlier works by Boris Mikhailov. Between them they cover subjects as diverse as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, studio photography in Beirut, elections in the Congo, everyday life in pre- and post-Soviet Ukraine, and power production in the United States.

Since its invention in the nineteenth century, photography has been used to provide accurate representations of objects, people, places or events. The twentieth-century concept of ‘documentary’ photography, however, is more complex than simply using the camera as a piece of recording technology and suggests a concern with the ways in which photography can bear witness to the world. The documentary value of a photograph is implicitly based on its claim to objectivity, which may depend on the choice of subject matter, the perspective from which it was taken, and the context in which it is shown or reproduced.

Throughout the twentieth century, photographers have sought new ways to document pressing social and political issues, and sometimes even to influence them. In recent years, however, these same forms of documentary photography – with the kinds of subject matter and perspective familiar from newspapers and magazines – have been produced by artists to be exhibited in museums and galleries. Each of the five rooms in this display is devoted to a single contemporary artist whose work raises the question of the documentary role of the photograph today and offers alternative ways of seeing, recording and understanding the events and situations that shape the world in which we live.

Curated by Simon Baker and Shoair Mavlian