Fiction has been an accepted element of art photography for almost as long as photography has existed. By contrast there’s still a marked hesitance amongst many documentary photographers when it comes to integrating fictional elements into their works, as I realised during a few recent Twitter conversations. Twitter is great for fast moving conversations, but less so for more in depth discussions, so I thought I’d make a short case for the merging of fact and fiction in certain projects, and knowing Duckrabbit’s emphasis on the theatrical elements of factual storytelling I thought here would be a good place to make it.
The example I often give in defending the merging of fact and fiction is Joshua Lutz’s book Hesitating Beauty, which on the face of it is about his relationship with his schizophrenic mother. When you finish the book you’ll probably feel, as I did, pretty confused. It’s full of visual dead ends, ambiguous images and strange recapitulations, as well as quite a few photographs that look like they might have been manipulated or otherwise interfered with after the fact.
Given time it gradually dawns on you that Lutz has used these fictions and ambiguities to very effectively insert you into his mother’s world. It’s the world of someone where fact and fiction merge to a dangerous degree, where nothing can be dismissed as trivial. Here everything from a car number plate to a spider’s web seems to be loaded with potentially life changing importance. The intention I think isn’t to be clever or different, it’s not about subverting the documentary form for the sake of controversy or hijacking it for the purposes of art. It’s about drawing you deep into an exceptionally difficult subject without you even realising it, making the eventual moment of recognition all the more powerful.
The old idea that photography should just show things as they are still holds sway to a great extent in the documentary community, and to be sure it still makes perfect sense in certain circumstances just to show. But showing the surface of something extremely complex often isn’t a very effective way to get us to understand it, because often we simply end up repeating what we already know, or think we know. I think far more powerful is using photography like a form of emulator, whereby the precise strategies and techniques used in the project are selected to mirror the subject at hand and get the viewer as close as possible to it in the process.
I’m not suggesting we should tear down the (admittedly rather shaky) walls of photographic reality in every single situation and replace it with untruths and mirages. I think it’s obvious there will always be subjects and stories which need to be recorded and told in a way which is completely straight. Instead what I’m trying to say is that adding elements of fiction to a project is just another strategy or technique which can be applied in certain circumstances, where it is highly appropriate to the subject and where it enhances, rather than diminishes, our understanding of it.