Documentation and/as Demonstration

Documentation and/as Demonstration

“Democracy when the roots are literally translated means “rule of the people”, and in order for that to happen, people must make their voices heard. This peaceful and socially distanced GEO protest represents everything democracy is, expressing and standing up for what you believe in, even if it goes against the structures currently in place, even against adversity.”

The photograph above, taken by first-year student Sophie Kane during the fall 2020 GEO strike, speaks not only the to moment she captures – one in which graduate student instructors fought for safer and more equitable working conditions – but also the simple yet profound tradition of documentation itself. Particularly in times of crisis, strife, or discontent, the power to document – to preserve a single fleeting moment that speaks to a larger movement or cause – has been a central and vital mode of transmission. It has also been a task rightly taken both by formal artists and everyday observers, a phenomenon perhaps best exemplified in recent memory by the public response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. Media, for example, was flooded with images and videos taken of the daily seven o’clock cheers for health care workers, captured by New Yorkers shut inside their homes. In turn, these captured moments inspired works of art – such as Valerie Coleman’s piece “Seven O’Clock Shout,” commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in honor of frontline workers.

Indeed, even ordinary pieces of media became vital time capsules for the historical record. The Smithsonian, for instance, sought to collect “artifacts” from the year 2020 – physical objects, digital media, oral histories, and other forms of documentation – in an effort to record and preserve the public’s experience of living through such unprecedented times.

These documentary acts from the early days of the COVID pandemic demonstrates the function of an aesthetic object – be it a formal composition, such as Coleman’s piece, or an image or video captured by a stranger – as a mode of Fdocumentation and, in turn, a vehicle for political participation. It is also a rather democratic form of aesthetic engagement, accessible to anyone with a camera or recorder – as evidenced, for example, by Kane’s photograph. Finally, we might think of documentation as one of the more immediate, tangible ways of engaging in politics through artistic means – a prospect which, while reasonably celebrated for its impact, is also susceptible to healthy skepticism about its utility in the face of a crisis.

A crisis in slow motion: Subhankar Banerjee’s Resource Wars in the American Arctic

A prime example of the use of documentary footage to capture a crisis as it plays out comes in Subhankar Banerjee’s photo series Resource Wars in the American Arctic. In the early 2000’s – an era that coincided with accelerated drilling in the arctic – Banerjee spent fourteen months in northeastern Alaska, taking pictures along his journey. From his first picture – capturing a polar bear eating another – Banerjee realized that “the ghastly photograph could serve as a visual evidence of both climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis.” The series of photographs serve as a continuous record of these twin crises – momentary capsules as their effects unfold slowly but steadily, in real time.

Banerjee, Hulahula-Okpilak Delta III | Oil and the Caribou, 2006

Of course, Banerjee is not the first photographer to capture documentary footage with a political bent. However, my reasons for highlighting Banerjee’s work are both the specific features of this particular crisis – climate change – and the very real political impacts of Banerjee’s work. First, we might think of documenting climate change as both a daunting and paradoxical task given the impossibility of capturing such expansive and long-term change in a single moment. In his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, literary scholar Rob Nixon theorizes such change as a kind of “slow violence” – “a violence,” he writes, “that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” For Nixon, his counters a more typical conception of violence, which is “conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility.”1 This kind of slow violence is, by definition, hard to represent, owing to its temporal dispersal, its inability to be captured in any adequate way in a single moment. Instead, Banerjee’s photographs capture, at times, its sweeping effects – for instance, documenting vast expanses of arctic land covered by oil in photographs – and, at other times, a single moment upon a larger temporal landscape of change – photographs of birds in migration, for instance, in which they are temporarily frozen in time, but which point to the changes to their migratory patterns due to their changing environment. Indeed, Banerjee’s photographs operate as a sort of allusion to change; in capturing a single moment as it was, they function as a sort of capsule that inherently implies a difference from both before and after the photograph, a barometer of slow violence as its effects took hold in that particular time and place.

Banerjee, Snow Geese I, Oil and the Caribou, 2002

But Banerjee’s photographs are also particularly significant not just because they document a political issue, but because they became central into that issue’s attendant political debate. After Banerjee’s photographs were exhibited at the Smithsonian, Senator Barbara Boxer exhibited some of the photographs during Senate debate on an attempt to open the coastal plain to oil and gas exploration. While the Senate ultimately voted down the legislation, the photographs’ inclusion in the debate thrusted Banerjee’s work into the center of a political controversy – and shortly after, the exhibition at the Smithsonian was censured, which prompted further outcry. Since then, the work has toured the country, along with an accompanying catalogue featuring a foreword by former president Jimmy Carter. Since then, Banerjee has continued documenting widespread environmental crises, and now serves as the founding director of both the Center for Environmental Arts and Humanities and the Species in Peril project at the University of New Mexico.

Art and Activism in the ACT UP Protests

If Banerjee’s photographic work functions as a representation of looming climate catastrophe – a demonstration of its slow but sure progress – other causes have benefited from documentary photography to address a crisis in all of its immediacy. While Banerjee’s photographs might have the effect of making a long-term, distant crisis feel more immediate, these photographs function to bring stark attention to a catastrophe unfolding in real time, but that was largely and deliberately ignored.

All photos from New York Public Library Archives

The ACT UP Protests of the late 1980’s were themselves meant to bring attention to a public health crisis that had been ignored in media and government discourse. The protests were particularly notable, however, for their visual counterparts. These large posters, with appropriately large lettering, contained simple, bold, to-the-point statements: “THE AIDS CRISIS IS NOT OVER” and the famous “SILENCE=DEATH.” The aesthetic function of these posters – not just the lettering, but their visual components, such as the pink triangle on the Silence = Death slogan (a symbol appropriated from the Nazi marker of gay men) to overblown images of complicit government officials (Reagn, Bush, Koch) – must not be discounted; more than simply communicating a message, they constitute a collapsing between art as art and art as direct action.

Indeed, the ACT UP demonstrations themselves – as well as their attendant documentary photographs – function as aesthetic demonstration on multiple levels. First, their stark visual components treat the aesthetic as a vector of direct action. And yet, they also register that such representations are never adequate to the actual severity of the issue at hand – best exemplified by a 1988 Gran Fury poster which reads “WITH 42,000 DEAD ART IS NOT ENOUGH.” Furthermore, the demonstrations themselves were an aesthetic exercises, a performance of the ritual of protest, taken further in the case of ACT UP by their staging of die-ins. In his retrospective on the art and activism of the AIDS crisis, titled AIDS Demographics, Douglas Crimp theorizes that the protests, their art, and – insofar as it catalogs them – his own book all function as “in both sense of the word – as “direct action” and as “representation,” and also as a template for how to make activist work in support of any cause.2 Indeed, The ACT UP movement, and the photographs that document them, is a unique example of a fundamental collapsing between art and activism – and in doing so, suggest both the insufficiency, but also the necessity, of art and/as direct action.

What other examples of documentary art can you think of? Send other examples or original work on the submission page!

1 Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2.

2 Douglas Crimp with Adam Rolston, AIDS Demographics (Seattle: Bay Press, 1990), 13.