Fiction as a Visual Strategy in the Photobook:
How Contemporary Photographers Challenge the Documentary Genre Through the Printed Page

Text by Stefan Vanthuyne
First published in When Fact Is Fiction: Documentary Art in the Post-Truth Era, edited by Nele Wynants, Antennae-Arts in Society Series Nr.28, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2019

‘All literary forms are artificial, and they are constantly changing, to match the new tone and mood of the culture.’
V.S. Naipaul, The New York Review of Books, April 23, 1987

‘Everything is put there with one goal, which is to tell the story in the best way possible, no matter what.’
Laia Abril, at the symposium The Individual, The Political and The Photobook, February 1, 2018

At the Photobook Phenomenon in CCCB in Barcelona in 2017, an exhibition on the role of the photobook in contemporary visual culture and as a way to reinterpret the history of photography, there was a space dedicated to contemporary photobook practices. Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena had written a text on the wall, next to a presentation of spreads of his book Santa Barbara Return Jobs back to US(2016), the first in a trilogy on the current state of affairs in America. In this text, which is also printed in the exhibition’s catalogue, he clearly and eloquently addresses the issues and the challenges documentary photographers face today, and why they increasingly turn to making books. According to Cartagena, the photobook opens up a space to explore the possibilities of narrative in documentary photography. Instead of being constrained to the structured assignment, where the images one creates need to visualize the subject of that project, Cartagena believes that those constraints can be modified and played with through the photobook, pushing the idea of documentation to another level of experimentation, doubt, and questioning of form and content. ‘In essence’, Cartagena concluded, ‘we are constructing new meanings and suggesting a point of view that, yes, might be flawed or biased, but it is also the starting point for a more thoughtful and broader manifestation of something that might deserve a little more of our time, money and attention.’ [2]

The exhibition also featured the most recent book by Barcelona-based Laia Abril. Lobismuller (2017) is a historical story, told from a female perspective, of an enigmatic Spanish serial killer. A project that according the artist, ‘moves slightly away from documentary photography, towards reconstruction, documentary fiction or art.’ [3] The book is based on Abril’s factual research, which she then conceptualizes, connects, and visualizes. Abril adds what she calls layers of visual and production research, visual inputs from sources, which often have nothing to do with photography or with the story itself. Three years earlier she had published the critically acclaimed The Epilogue, where she carefully reconstructed the story of the Robinson family, and the aftermath of losing their 26-year-old daughter to bulimia. Abril had already been working on what she refers to as the world epidemic of eating disorders since 2010.

Both Cartagena and Abril participated in a round-table discussion during the symposium The Individual, The Political and The Photobook on February 1st, 2018, on the role of the contemporary photobook in the documentary genre of photography today. Through thorough attention to design, image selection, and sequence, photobooks have become a perfect medium for complex and layered visual stories. And in what has become a noticeable trend, more and more photographers experiment with the book in terms of both form and content to push the ideas and boundaries of the documentary genre. Besides Abril and Cartagena the panel consisted of Belgian photographer and doctoral researcher in the arts Max Pinckers, who had just self-published his fourth book Margins of Excess, where again he questions notions of truth and fiction in documentary photography, this time in what we now call a post-truth era.

Fictions of an Imagined Truth

The round-table discussion opened with the cover image of Max Pinckers’ latest book. That image—a black boy in a white T-shirt holding a white girl in a black shirt, the girl having tears in her eyes, in a dramatically lit scene—is part of a series of images that are woven through the book and that come back every so often. Pinckers made the images in collaboration with young actors in Hollywood and in New York. This idea stems from his research at the KASK School of Arts Ghent, where he is investigating stereotypes, the conventions, and the recurring images that we tend to see in photojournalism or news photography. Research that also resulted in the making of the Trophy Camera v0.9, ‘the first prototype of an A.I.-powered camera that only makes award-winning pictures’, [4] based on all previous winning World Press Photos of the Year.

One of the things Pinckers is interested in, he said during this discussion, is how after an event—mostly horrific events, like a bombing or a tragedy—newspapers and media need to start producing images to tell the story. Often, we see very similar images being published; people putting flowers near a memorial or people hugging each other, pictures that are very emotionally charged and are often close-ups. Pinckers wanted to investigate if he could recreate this type of imagery, but without anything actually having happened. Working with actors, ‘who can cry on demand’, Pinckers aimed for an emotional effect on the viewer, in a similar way as the press might do when selecting images for their news stories.

In the book, Pinckers connects six different American stories, all situated somewhere in the realm between truth and fiction, into one narrative. Most of the time the subject matter dominates the narrative, Pinckers pointed out. When making a documentary work, people will talk about the subject, rather than the visual strategy or the visual approach. Pinckers’ oeuvre until now has always been about finding a new balance in which the subject matter and the visual approach are in constant dialogue. Working with six different subjects instead of one, meant that none of them could dominate what the work was about.

The six protagonists are real people, not actors. However, one of them, Herman Rosenblat, had died in 2015, a year before Pinckers started photographing. Rosenblat became known for the so-called Holocaust love story, a story about how he met his wife. In 1993 Rosenblat wrote a memoir, entitled Angel at the Fence. In one scene a young and hungry Rosenblat, who was held captive at the Schlieben subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, recalls how a young girl threw him an apple from the other side of the barbed wire fence. Twelve years later he recognized the girl in a woman called Roma Radzicki, with whom he was on a blind date in Coney Island. Soon after, the two got married.

The memoir was set to be published in 2009, but the release got cancelled when it became clear that much of what Rosenblat had written was fabricated, something he admitted to after appearing on Oprah in 2007. According to the New York Times, Rosenblat had lied because he ‘wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate but to love and tolerate all people. … My motivation was to make good in this world. In my dreams, Roma will always throw me an apple, but I now know it is only a dream.’ [5] In his imagination, he believed it, Rosenblat said. ‘Even now, I believe it, that she was there and she threw the apple to me.’ [6]

Pinckers is concerned with what happens and what the consequences are when these personal stories, these fictional truths that were created in someone’s imagination for no harmful reasons, start to take on an unexpected and uncontrollable life of their own, once they are uncovered by the media. In the book, Pinckers replaced the apple with an orange. While on the road, doubt struck about whether in fact it was an apple or an orange. Pinckers and his wife Victoria, who accompanies and assists him on his projects, eventually choose an orange, because of the bright contrast against the blue sky; the title of the resulting image being The Apple That Wasn’t. The fact that the apple was already a figment of Rosenblat’s imagination gave Pinckers the necessary space to make this kind of aesthetic decision as a photographer, he told in an email. For a portrait of Rosenblat he used a stand-in, an old man that could be any old man, his head turned away from the camera, with an apple in his hand. Here Pinckers is using fiction to recreate a truth that was imagined in the first place. It’s a delicate balancing act, he admits, but that is exactly what makes it so interesting.

In a somewhat ludicrous way, all of this is reminiscent of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 controversy, where a winning photograph entitled Night Raider was disqualified because the animal in the picture turned out to be dead. The Natural History Museum in London, which runs the competition, consulted five independent scientists to conclude that the anteater in the photograph was in fact stuffed.

In a wonderful opinion piece in The Guardian, David Mitchell writes that the viewer has been deceived into inferring that the anteater is alive. But then again, he argues, it doesn’t really misrepresent the reality of nature, as ‘anteaters do attack termite mounds – he [the photographer] just failed to capture it actually happening.’ [7] Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth, Mitchel quotes Albert Camus. ‘Well, if Night Raider is a lie, and it tells the truth about anteaters, is it fiction? Yes.’ [8]

If an anecdote turns out to be fictional, Mitchel writes, people lose interest in it. The stories in Margins of Excess however are more, or became more than simple anecdotes, some of them causing people to feel betrayed, sometimes even outraged. Because what was only a personal fiction at first, suddenly became a public lie; and in the case of the unlikely Rosenblat love story, a lie people really wanted to believe.

A Narrative License

Within the history of photography, the use of fiction through staging is not new. In his essay Documentary Fictions, Joan Fontcuberta discusses the famous picture with a view of the Boulevard du Temple, a daguerreotype from 1838 made by the inventor of the process, Louis Daguerre. Shot from a window in Daguerre’s apartment, looking out on the Boulevard, the image is considered to be the first photograph of a person. According to Fontcuberta there were two identical shots, taken from the same point on the same day, but at slightly different times. The first photograph shows a seemingly empty Boulevard devoid of all human presence, not because there were no people roaming the streets of this vibrant centre of Parisian theatre, but the long exposure time needed—fifteen minutes to sometimes more than an hour—simply erased all moving figures and objects. To obtain a sharp image, anyone on the street would have to hold still during the entire time of the exposure.

The second picture however, the one that would eventually gain its place in the history of photography, comes with a small surprise, showing the presence of a bootblack and his client on the pavement in the lower left corner. The scene not only looks incredibly perfect; it also feels rather convenient. So convenient that Fontcuberta suspects Daguerre, who had theatrical experience, of having hired two actors, perhaps his assistants, ‘to simulate a situation that is static but not without a certain naturalness’. [9] Yet, here too we would love to believe that the bootblack just happened to be there at the right moment, holding still for long enough. According to Fontcuberta, not in the least because it makes for a better story.

The strictly documentary use of the camera fails in its attempt to capture living reality, and it is only by cheating that we can achieve a certain truth, only with a conscious simulation that we come close to an epistemologically satisfying representation.

That this is a form of fraud … shifts the question to one of value judgments and an ethical code that determines which behaviours are licit. We can regard it as narrative licence, as well-intentioned mischief, or as a rhetorical resource of information whose ultimate basis lies on the political horizon of its consequences. [10]

American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith stirred a small controversy when it became known that many of the most famous shots from his photo essay Spanish Village, published in LIFE magazine in 1951, had in fact been staged or re-shot by him. In an interview during an American Society of Media Photographers meeting in 1956, when asked about the possible staging of one picture of a woman throwing water in the streets, Smith answered that he would not have hesitated to ask her to throw the water, adding that he doesn’t object to staging if and only if he feels that it is an intensification of something that is absolutely authentic to the place.

When colleague and interviewer Philippe Halsman then asks him why he breaks this basic rule of candid photography, Smith delivers his famous quote: ‘I didn’t write the rules — why should I follow them?’ [11] Since he puts a great deal of time and research to knowing what he is about, Smith said he asks and arranges if he feels it is legitimate. ‘The honesty lies in my, the photographer’s, ability to understand.’ [12] Fontcuberta not only follows this line of reasoning, as his thoughts on Daguerre’s picture suggests, he also stresses that knowing this does not in any way devalues Smith’s humanistic and artistic merit. ‘I’ve always thought that the photographer does artistic work and that art consists of working with fictional premises.’ [13]

This is indeed the established context in which contemporary artists such as Pinckers, Cartagena, and Abril work today, one would assume. And in a way one could say it is what separates the artist from the photojournalist, though boundaries concerning this distinction are—and will probably always remain—blurry, and because of that, occasionally contested. Pinckers was accepted as a nominee to the prestigious Magnum agency in 2015, but he didn’t pass the vote to become an associate member two years later. In Pinckers’ view, the majority of photographers still have a traditional view on documentary photography, where staging is still taboo. During the symposium Pinckers rephrased this opinion as follows:

As an artist, we are always trying to look for a way to be completely free, to be able to do exactly what we want to do without having to explain ourselves, without having to contextualize it. We just want to make the images we have in our mind. But of course, that’s very difficult. It’s all about finding a balance between how much you have to bring a context into it – or a narrative, or some kind of way that someone who can’t read your mind can still reflect on it or find something in it for themselves.

Editing and Sequencing, Patterns and Structure

When Alejandro Cartagena started to work as a photographer, conceptual expectations were high. The work always had to start with a well-defined project ‘and a text that explains what you’re trying to do’, dixit Cartagena. For six or seven years, he tried to fulfil the expectations of the text with images. In a next phase, he turned things around. Though he still created a context to work in, he didn’t start from a fixed conceptual framework before he photographed. Instead, he wanted to photograph first, and then afterwards, through the process of editing, create meaning. For his Santa Barbara-trilogy—including Santa Barbara Return Jobs back to US (2016) and Santa Barbara Shame On Us (2017), part three still to come—Cartagena worked as a resident in Santa Barbara in 2015, making photographs and collecting a lot of images; everything that had to do with the city. He only had one month to take pictures. Being used to taking three to four years for a project, he felt anxious and scared. Embracing this anxiety, he started what he calls an anti-documentary project. After this short residency he used the internet as a camera for several more months. He would type ‘Santa Barbara’ into a search engine and he would just browse, download, and gather images. He also went down to the Library of Congress and looked for anything on Santa Barbara.

And then suddenly Santa Barbara became nothing. Because there’s Santa Barbara everywhere: there’s a Santa Barbara in California, there’s one in Mexico and one in Chile – there are many Santa Barbaras. That brought to me a question: who’s putting the meaning to places and to things? (Cartagena during panel discussion)

Cartagena realized it was a project that was not bringing answers and was not telling you something, it was asking questions. Only afterwards, working with the editors of the book, he understood what had happened. He took the pictures in 2015 during the presidential election campaigns in the US. These for him were ideal circumstances; nobody knew what was going to happen. This complete uncertainty is reflected in the pictures and thus the book also reflects the uncertain cultural state. So here again the question of meaning pops up: the images were taken a year before, but when thoughtfully edited, they talk about the state of a place, of a situation today.

Part two of the trilogy dealt with the fact that Trump actually won the elections, making Cartagena wonder what the current feeling was of this American culture when somebody that more than half of the US didn’t want as a president wins. So, they edited these images—which had nothing to do with the elections or the current conditions—in such a way that it felt like they were talking about people’s feelings right here, right now in the US. The trilogy will end at the end of Trump’s term, where no one yet knows what will happen. But the pictures have already been made and have been gathered. So again, the authorship, Cartagena says, will come in trying to talk about what is going to happen in three more years, using images made five years ago.

Editing and sequencing images lies at the very core of photobook making. It is often a long and hard process of looking for relationships and patterns, relying not only on chronological or visual connections between photographs, but also making use of symbols and metaphors. One of the clearest explanations about how sequencing—and what he calls image binding—works in photobooks, and how this relates to fiction, was written by Tate Shaw, director of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York:

I’m using the word 'binding' in the conceptual sense, how images mentally link to one another or to a text. Photo sequence combines images in a specific order to create a context for meaning to be inferred between the images…. Binding compels the reader to give the two images a single overriding identity and recognize them as a whole. A narrative leap is required to see the two pictures as one entity. To form a closure, we think through why they go together, though this thought process may not be entirely conscious.… Metaphor expresses a complex idea by making a comparison, one thing to another, to more clearly represent the unrepresentable. Binding the subject matter in these two distinct images becomes a way the photographer can make what is interior exterior. Image binding is a fiction the author creates by having one photograph following another in sequence. The strength of fiction is that it is unreal, and yet it exists in the world to reveal something about it. Part of reading fiction is forgetting that you’re doing it. You have to unconsciously see through the ink on the page to experience a barely budding awareness outside of what is actually there. [14]

According to American photographer Doug DuBois, author of All the Days and Nights (2009) and My Last Day at Seventeen (2015), when a photobook begins to happen, the story in a sense has already been written. When the process of converting the work to a book starts, it's all about structure. ‘And structure is very much about pattern and of course pattern generates meaning.’ [15] Filmmaker Wolf Koenig took this idea one step further when speaking about the demanding editing process of documentary films—which shares certain similarities with the process of editing and sequencing a photobook—by not only also stating that structure is what a film is really about, but also aligning it with truth:

I’ve come to the conclusion in my dotage that ‘structure’ is what all the arts are really about – music, dance, the graphic arts, the theatre, the literary arts, architecture, poetry, etc. They show us by inference something that we otherwise can’t see. This ‘something’ is invisible to us, like a fir tree in the dark. But come Christmas time, people hang lights all over the boughs. At first one only sees the lights, but if you step back a bit and squint, you see the shape of the tree – even though the tree itself is still invisible. The lights define it, so we’re able to see it by inference. In this laboured analogy, the lights represent the ‘arts’ and the tree the ‘structure’. And the structure is what permeates the universe from the sub-atomic particle to the whole cosmos – in effect, we are all little lights hung on the invisible tree. And the arts are about the only way we have of talking about this thing: structure or truth. [16]

Notice also how both Shaw and Koenig respectively speak of ‘a barely budding awareness outside of what is actually there’ and showing us ‘by inference something that we otherwise can’t see’. This idea very much relates to what Cartagena referred to. Except that in his case, the events on which the stories are based are yet to unfold, though the images with which they will be written, have already been made, making these stories fictions about a future present, edited in such a manner that they will speak of a present state when published.

In a fascinating way, Cartagena’s trilogy becomes a contemporary conceptual example of what John Berger wrote in 1982, in an essay on photographic stories, on the process of sequencing – and by extension on the idea of a personal authorship.

Photographs so placed are restored to a living context: not of course to the original temporal context from which they were taken—that is impossible—but to a context of experience. And there, their ambiguity at last becomes true. It allows what they show to be appropriated by reflection. The world they reveal, frozen, becomes tractable. The information they contain becomes permeated by feeling. Appearances become the language of a lived life. [17]

Visual Codes and Strategies

Next to being staged, edited, or sequenced, images and how they are read are also influenced by visual codes. Max Pinckers uses these visual codes in his work to counteract what is expected from documentary photography. From very early on in his work, Pinckers uses these codes in an aesthetic or formal sense, for instance by not only staging a scene, but also lighting it in a theatrically way that is reminiscent of advertising:

In advertising we presume that we are being sold something, because of the form the image has and because of the lighting, because of the codes advertising uses. Whereas in photojournalism we assume that we look at something that really happens, and this too involves visual codes. I think aesthetics play a very important role in that. If we see images on the internet from protests, amateurish video footage that is more pixelated, then we assume that it is more real, because it feels more transparent. (Pinckers during panel discussion)

Thinking about how aesthetics play a role in making us believe certain things about what we are seeing, Pinckers attempts to bring these different forms together, to create new interpretation through the conflict that arises from this, always in function of what he wants the viewer to believe, or to make the viewer reflect on what he is told to believe.

Spanish artist Laia Abril has a background in journalism, and her work is primarily research-based. Even though she never really worked much as a journalist, the ground of what she does is still based on facts. Documentary photography however had put her in a box, she felt, and even though she tried to get rid of this objectivity issue, it was always there. Wanting to shed light on hidden issues that are disturbing and uncomfortable, documentary photography didn’t allow her to tell the stories that she wanted to tell, because most of the time these issues are invisible. This was especially the case with On Abortion, published in 2017 and the first chapter of a new long-term project called The History of Misogyny. In the colophon in the back of the book she writes:

This project is a visual analysis and interpretation by the artist of the repercussions of lack of access to abortion in the world. Some of the images in this book are reconstructions or visual metaphors based on information discovered through extensive research. [18]

This was the first time Abril had reconstructed images, while talking about a very real subject, thus reacting against everything she’d been taught. Talking about reality, fiction, and documentary photography, she said at the round-table, she doesn’t really have a strong opinion on what we should do. She does know however that she needs a reality behind the story that she’s telling, but that reality doesn’t necessarily have to be reflected in the images. Mostly because it doesn’t exist anymore, because the events in the story have happened in the past.

After her studies, Abril had first moved to New York, and then to Italy where she ended up in Fabrica, a communication research centre based in Treviso, and an integral part of the Benetton group. Abril worked for five years as a photo editor, photographer, and researcher for their magazine Colors. Here she was surrounded by designers and creative people and not in touch anymore with the world of documentary photography. Founded by advertising photographer Oliviero Toscani, design is the most important aspect of the magazine, before photography and before text.

At this point she decided to also work on photobooks. One of the first books Abril designed and edited, together with Ramon Pez, with whom she worked for her own books as well, was The Afronauts (2012), an immensely successful self-published book by Cristina De Middel, an old friend of hers. ‘The way we started doing photobooks was very similar to the way we did the magazine’, Abril recalled. ‘Design, production, budget, narrative, storytelling… Everything is put there with one goal, which is to tell the story in the best way possible, no matter what.’

During a workshop she gave to photography students at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, Abril spoke about how On Abortion doesn’t really contain any graphical images, even though she had seen disturbing photographs herself, and had access to these images, but specifically decided not to show them. Like Pinckers, she found herself looking for visual strategies, in which she tried to avoid stereotypical images of victimization. Nonetheless there were a couple of images that were very important to her. One is about a woman who had died in the fifties, a rather graphic image of her lying dead. She had just had an abortion, and she passed away. Abril decided not to use the picture in an exhibition. But she considered the book as a different experience, a more intimate and slower one. Reading a book, she felt, is less physical than being in a public space with other people, looking at these images – that’s hard. You can close the book, think about it and come back later. Abril turned to design as a way to include the image in a non-confrontational way. She decided to place the image behind another image – in order to see it one needs to lift the upper image. It is also printed in a very transparent way so one can barely see it. The tone of the book is very subtle; it is the way Abril thinks the story should be told.

Another way of guiding the reader, then, of course, is the use of text. Especially when the subject of the story is hard to photograph, because it is invisible or it concerns a past event, text becomes very important. One of the most interesting things about the photobook format is that it provides room to really contextualize the images and the sequence, using other materials than photographs, dixit Max Pinckers, who deliberately uses text as a tool to steer the reader in a certain direction or interpretation. ‘If you want to tell a reader exactly where they have to go, you need text’, Cartagena added. ‘Images can’t do that.’ Without any additional context photobooks remain incredibly open to interpretation. The first time Laia Abril used words it was not in a written text. Instead she used a voice in an interview in a multimedia installation. She also considers the use of words, either written or spoken, as a strategy, a way to subtly move somebody from the first page of the book to the last one.

Whatever story is being told or whatever theme or subject is being communicated, or whatever the intention with which it is being communicated, many of the strategies or methods photographers use are intended to hold the reader’s attention, to guide them in a certain direction according to a well-thought-out path, whether or not with the help of an editor, a designer, or even a publisher.

The Photobook Maker as Author as Producer

The more strategies are being used, one could argue, the further one goes astray from the facts and the closer one comes to fiction. John Berger, in that same essay on photographic stories wrote: ‘In reports ambiguities are unacceptable; in stories they are inevitable.’ [19] Today however, for photographers such as Pinckers, Abril, and Cartagena, ambiguities have become instrumental; albeit remaining, in the spirit of W. Eugene Smith, something to be dealt with, with great responsibility, care, and consideration.

As Pinckers pointed out during the round-table, the documentary space is a very interesting one, precisely because there is always that presumption that we are referring to something that really happened, something that is real, something that is important for our reality. ‘Documentary as a genre doesn’t have a very distinct form that we can identify, so there is still a lot of room for how you can go about using that space.’ The importance of an inventive and artistic approach within that space today, is also emphasized by David Campany. He writes that with no agreed conventions to fall back on, documentary has now entered a state of permanent and urgent experimentation: ‘One cannot assume the form one’s work should take: one discovers it idiosyncratically, in the midst of things.’ [20]

The books themselves become important instruments through which their makers reflect on media and visual culture, on a level that surpasses the stories they contain. They address issues of documentary photography and the status quo, and the need for critique and self-reflection. In a glorious review of Laia Abril’s On Abortion, critic Jörg Colberg recognizes this critical but constructive potential of the photobook:

With a world of photojournalism mired in what looks like a morass of problems (gender, diversity, Western-centric views, various photography problems), from which it is unable to extricate itself, another world is possible. And that is what Abril presents with On Abortion: she establishes the new gold standard of the research-based photographic book. [21]

This attention to form and strategies in art within a present political climate is the point of focus in a speech prepared, but never delivered by Walter Benjamin for the Institute for the Study of Fascism, a Communist front organization in Paris, in 1934. The title of this speech was The Author as Producer. In the text Benjamin examines the relation between the production of literary works and the politics of the time in which they are produced. ‘This question directly concerns the function the work has within the literary relations of production of its time. It is concerned, in other words, directly with the literary technique of works.’ [22] Benjamin directs our attention to Russian writer Sergei Tretiakov, who made the distinction between the operating writer and the informing writer. While the informing writer merely reports, the operating writer wants to intervene actively. Benjamin sums up an array of activities that Tretiakov, whom he considered an operating writer, performed in 1928:

…. calling mass meetings; collecting funds to pay for tractors; persuading independent peasants to enter the kolkhoz [collective farm]; inspecting the reading rooms; creating wall newspapers and editing the kolkhoz newspaper; reporting for Moscow newspapers; introducing radio and mobile movie houses; and so on. [23]

Benjamin then had planned to defeat his audience to the demur that these tasks had more to do with journalism and propaganda than with literature, with which they seem to have little to do, by stating that he cited the example of Tretiakov deliberately:

…. in order to point out to you how comprehensive the horizon is within which we have to rethink our conceptions of literary forms or genres, in view of the technical factors affecting our present situation, if we are to identify the forms of expression that channel the literary energies of the present. There were not always novels in the past, and there will not always have to be; there have not always been tragedies or great epics. Not always were the forms of commentary, translation, indeed even so-called plagiarism playthings in the margins of literature; they had a place not only in the philosophical but also in the literary writings of Arabia and China. Rhetoric has not always been a minor form: in Antiquity, it put its stamp on large provinces of literature. All this is to accustom you to the thought that we are in the midst of a mighty recasting of literary forms, a melting down in which many of the opposites in which we have been used to think may lose their force. [24]

Looking at the documentary genre within photography today, one can argue that it is in a similar state of recasting as literary forms were, during an intense political period in 1934. In a similar vein, photobook makers such as Max Pinckers (working with facts and fiction in a post-truth era), Laia Abril (working on misogyny and women’s rights) and Alejandro Cartagena (looking at the US under Trump) can be considered authors as producers, resorting to the book as their medium of choice and to creative strategies—the technique of the work, in Benjamin’s words, which refers to both the aesthetic choices and the means of production—that indeed perfectly fit these times. And here too, the works of these photographers are not protest or propaganda books, nor are they a form of journalism in the strict sense of the word.

According to Benjamin the writers that matter are the ones that are the best technicians in their fields. ‘An author who teaches writers nothing teaches no one’, he claims. ‘What matters, therefore, is the exemplary character of production, which is able, first, to induce other producers to produce, and, second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal.’ [25] Does the writer have ‘proposals for the Umfunktionierung of the novel, the drama, the poem?’, [26] Benjamin asks near the end of his speech.

Max Pinckers, Laia Abril and Alejandro Cartagena—and other contemporary photographers with them—deal with documentary photography as genre, in terms of its function, and the photobook as form. These authors, as producers, are playing with the photobook, pushing the idea of documentation to another level of experimentation, doubt, and questioning of form and content, as Cartagena wrote on the wall at the Photobook Phenomenon exhibition. This is indeed something worth talking about, because photographers, designers and publishers are making these books as we speak.

End notes:

[1] Naipaul, V.S. ‘On Being a Writer.’ The New York Review of Books, 1987, last accessed on August 28, 2018

[2] Caragena, Alejandro. ‘Santa Barbara Return Jobs back to US, 2015-16.’ Photobook Phenomenon. Contemporary Practices, ed. Irene de Mendoza & Moritz Neumüller, CCCB, Fundació Foto Colectania, RM Editores, 2017.

[3] Abril, Laia. ‘Lobismuller, 2016.’ Photobook Phenomenon. Contemporary Practices, ed. Irene de Mendoza & Moritz Neumüller, CCCB, Fundació Foto Colectania, RM Editores, 2017.

[4] ‘Trophy Camera v0.9.’ Max Pinckers,

[5] Roberts, Sam. ‘Herman Rosenblat, 85, Dies; Made Up Holocaust Love Story.’ The New York Times, 2015, last accessed on August 28, 2018.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mitchell, David. ‘If you must fake a photo, it had better be good.’ The Guardian, 2018, last accessed on September 1, 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Fontcuberta, Joan. Pandora’s Camera. Mack, 2014.

[10] Ibid., pp. 108-109.

[11] The New York Times. ‘W. Eugene Smith: “I Didn’t Write the Rules, Why Should I Follow Them?”’ The New York Times, Lens, 2013, last accessed on August 28, 2018.
[12] Ibid.

[13] Zelich, Christina. ‘Joan Fontcuberta. Interview with Christina Zelich//2005.’ Documentary, ed. Julian Stallabrass, Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2013, pp. 180-183.

[14] Shaw, Tate. ‘Strategic Linkage: Binding and Sequence in Photobooks.’ The Photobook Review, ed. Markus Schaden, Aperture, 2012, pp. 4.

[15] Griggs, Tom. ‘Interview: Doug DuBois, Part II.’ Fototazo, 2013, last accessed on August 29, 2018

[16] Koenig, Wolf. ‘On editing and structure’. Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts, eds. Adam Bell & Charles H. Traub, University of California Press, 2015, pp. 104-105.

[17] Berger, John. ‘Stories.’ Understanding a Photograph, ed. Geoff Dyer, Penguin Books, 2013, pp. 99-104.

[18] Abril, Laia. On Abortion. Dewi Lewis, 2018.

[19] Berger, op cit, p. 99.

[20] Campany, David. ‘Best Books 2015: David Campany.’ Photo-eye, 2015, last accessed on September 3, 2018.

[21] Colberg, Jörg. ‘Photobook Reviews W08/2018.’ Conscientious Photography Magazine, 2018, last accessed on September 3, 2018.

[22] Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Author as Producer.’ Selected Writings Volume 2, Part 2, 1931-1934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 768-782

[23] Ibid., p. 770.

[24] Ibid., p. 771.

[25] Ibid., p. 777.

[26] Ibid., p. 780. Umfunktionierung refers to the term refunctioning, an aesthetic strategy Berthold Brecht implemented in his theatre, because he wanted it to intervene in the shaping of society. Brecht wasn’t just concerned about form and content, but about content, form (or technique) and function.