Hesitant Fictions

Joshua Lutz, Hesitating Beauty

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.


  • Ed

    Thanks for posting this Lewis and for engaging in the conversation we started on twitter and brought to respective blogs. I’ve been intrigued by the book since you mentioned it on now it’s on my list.

    I hope the point I made didn’t come across as dismissing fiction from photography entirely, but in being clear about when it is used unethically. I certainly think that this use as you describe it is effective and important. Many literal descriptions of stories fail because they didn’t encapsulate feeling, which is what it seems Josh Lutz apparently has done very well.

    I’ll certainly be thinking about this more, thanks Lewis.

    • Oh no, I thought you were very even handed in your piece, I just wanted to state my slightly differing case (and the bit about photographers being hesitant to use fictions was aimed far more widely, not at the other participants in our conversation). As you say, there are situations where these kinds of approaches can be used (intentionally or not) in completely the wrong way.

  • Great post Lewis. Reminds me of the experience of going to the cinema to see Jacob’s Ladder, a few decades ago. Within 20 minutes something I’ve never seen happen before occurred, people got up and left. Another 20 minutes passed and more people left. The film was ‘disturbing’ but not so bad that I’d have expected that to happen. I sat through it and then realized that the filmmaker’s ‘device’, whether intentional or not, had apparently been to pitch the audience headlong into weirdness, letting them get a taste of the protagonist’s situation. It was obviously too much for some folks. But it certainly gave one a bit of an insight into the hallucinatory experiences of the film’s subjects.

    I sort-of ‘stumbled’ into this personally with some images I made on a last-minute impulse as I oversaw my mum’s possessions (she had been removed from her home with dementia and would never return) removed from her flat. The images were hasty, unsharp, fragmentary, but later I felt they captured something of the essence of the events unfolding – almost metaphorical – the removal of ordinary objects but which were imbued with memory, leaving just an empty flat, in the same way that she had had memory slowly stripped away from her.

    • Thanks John, that’s a good point, that type of device is fine in fiction but we seem to get all uneasy when we see it in fact. Did you see an Act of Killing? A film with a lot of ‘issues’ but the main one people picked up on (the blurring of fact and fiction) seemed least significant to me. A little different, but I remember hearing that the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky said that the start of his film Stalker needed to be long and boring enough to give the people who had gone into the wrong cinema time to leave, it’s an idea that I like very much 🙂

  • Ed

    My sister’s response, not as comprehensive as I’d hoped but still, good to have her involved:

    “I think Bazin said it best, when he said photography tries to capture reality but can never do so – and, as such, it is art (he puts in more eloquently than this of course). I think holding onto this notion helps me navigate the world of documentary film.

    It also reminds me of Bill Nichols work – Introduction to Documentary (2001) and Representing Reality (1991). There are, of course, different types of documentary – which ‘play’ in different ways with the pro-filmic elements and film’s technical capabilities to communicate a greater truth.


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