Paul Seawright, Professor of Photography and Head of Belfast School of Art at the University of Ulster, visited the locations of 1970’s sectarian murders near his home in Belfast in order to take photographs.  The resulting 6 images printed as C-type prints in an edition of 5 are collectively referred to as the ‘Sectarian Murder’ series and have been exhibited in more than 20 countries. The images are accompanied by brief extracts from newspaper reports from the time relating to sectarian murders with links to the locations either as the sites where the murders were committed or where bodies were found. The description below is taken from the Art Fund Website. 

 The texts are from newspaper reports at the time and document the murders of innocent civilians killed for their perceived religion. The contrast between the often gruesome details of the fate of the victim and the banality of the locations depicted, such as a children’s playground or a well-known beauty spot, still has the power to shock. They also resonate far beyond their specific importance as a document of Northern Ireland’s Troubles as they bring home the peculiarly horrible and intimate nature of civil war that has been and continues to be replicated the world over.’     (*1)                                                    Source: –  Art Fund Website

On first encounter through Paul Seawright’s website, the images appear generally unprepossessing as visual entities being mundane views of ordinary locations with little if any intrinsic attractiveness or appeal.  The locations comprise a road junction with caravan; a close up dog in a field with rocks behind; a roundabout and swings on a children’s playground; a close-up hedge with landscape beyond; a spotlit scene of rubbish including a shoe and a bag in front of a distant hill; and a slide on a children’s playground.  They give the appearance of being the sort of images that anyone would and could take with any camera or mobile phone and therefore have little significance in themselves.  It is through their declared association with brutal and, to the majority of people’s eyes, pointless, murders that they derive meaning and impact.

No indication is given as to when they were taken and therefore how long had elapsed between the incidents to which they relate and the photographer’s visit.  Neither is it known whether the bodies were found / murders committed at the exact locations depicted within the images, say on the swing or under the bush, or in the general vicinity.  The juxtaposition of the images and their descriptive texts suggests that they are the exact spots and that the time between murder and photograph is an irrelevancy as the link is still strong between location and event.  The poignancy of the link between a murderous shooting and a harmless photographic shoot is also strong.

What do I get from the work?  If there was no context to give the images meaning, I would view them as being mundane images lacking any serious artistic merit and with insufficient interest or attractiveness to hold my attention.  As with much contemporary art, the only point of interest that would draw me to the images at all would be the usual questions about why they were taken and what was in the photographer’s mind to persuade him to shoot those subjects in those ways at those times.  With the advantage gained through knowledge of place and context, the images carry far more weight of meaning for me and are able to inspire my imagination.  However, there is a limit as to how far even this accessibility takes me and I will discuss this below in the My Thoughts section.  


This series, as with much of Seawright’s work and the work of other contemporary photographers, begs the question as to whether they are to be considered as works of art or of documentary.  Out of context, they merely record a photographer’s depiction of a location and as such they are clearly documentary. They do, however, have an element of unique creativity about them through the choices made by the photographer as regards the equipment and technique employed, the cropping and angle of shooting, the time of day, any post processing adjustments and other aspects of their printing and display that have gone into the creation of the finished work.  If creativity equates to art, then they should maybe be classified as art works.

Comparison with the work of other photographers does not help much as images of similar subject matter, composition, technical creation and general appearance have frequently been designated as art works, and much documentary work has higher levels of care, consideration and skill taken in the planning and execution of its creation.  

If consideration of the way that the images were planned and taken and looking at the images themselves does not clearly place the works into one or other of the two categories, then does context help?  The fact that there is a significant storyline attaching to, and linking, the images is clearly significant in the observer’s experience of the images, but is it enough to make them art instead of documentary?  I would suggest not.  Yes – the context provides a key to accessing meaning within the images, but the same could be said of documentary war photography where locations are linked to actions, often horrific ones.  That does not in my head make them art works necessarily.  So what does Seawright himself think?


In the short video on Vimeo (*2), Seawright makes it quite clear that he considers his photographs to be art works.  The crucial elements for Seawright in his work is that it engages with people and draws them in and also that it has a measured ambiguity which releases any meaning within the image slowly.  He refers to this as being the holy grail. In his view, an image which has no ambiguity and is too explicit is moved from the realm of art and into that of ‘journalism’ (for which I also read documentary).  He recognises that some find his work too ambiguous with a narrative that is obscure or difficult, but suggests that giving a piece of work context will enable viewers of the work to gain access to it and to discern its meanings.

It is this mix of hints and suggestions as to meaning through context and the freedom of choice of meaning offered to the ‘consumer’ by the element of ambiguity that is the  at the core of the artistic experience for Seawright.  Without it the image is relegated to the level of an editorial picture in a magazine.  From my take on what he says in the video, I understood that whilst Seawright had a clear vision as to his reasons for planning and creating the images that he did, it was for him an essential part of the artistic process that the construction of meaning is carried out by the ‘consumer’ and not the artist.  

Whereas Seawright suggests that a viewer’s knowledge of place and context in relation to a particular piece of work is necessary for the viewer to gain access to any implied meaning in the work, he does not explicitly state that an art work requires a title or a text in order to appreciate the piece and treat it as a work of art?  Is this implicit in what he says?  If not, what are we to make of photographs that have no title or text?  Do we infer that the photographer a). has no idea in his/her mind as to the reason he took the photograph or what he wanted it to portray, b). has no interest in the viewer ‘getting’ the meaning and purpose behind the image that the artist has, or c). has no interest in anything that the viewer might get from the image so long as they get something.  


Whilst I understand Seawright’s point of view and can go some way in agreement with him, I am unable to fully sign up to his thesis about the demarcation between art and documentary in relation to photography.  Indeed, I find it difficult to see that there is any true difference between the two except in the mind of the photographer who created it.  I can well understand that for a Professor of Photography it would be preferable to consider his work to be art rather than documentary, and equally, a photographer on the battlefield might well be quite happy to be considered as a documentary photographer rather than an artist.  

The whole question of defining images as art or documentary seems to be much more subjective than objective, and there is rather more than a hint of arbitrariness about it. It could be argued that giving an image location and context places it firmly in the documentary camp, whereas leaving all meaning ambiguous places it in the art camp.  Seawright would not agree with this but I don’t understand why.  If one was to create an image of a random ink blot with no explanation or context some people will see things into it like old crones or flying birds that would spark the imagination in different directions whereas others might struggle to see anything more than an ink blot.  Does this ambiguity make it an art work?

It is, surely, the same with any image.  A photograph of a tree, if given sufficient time and open-minded contemplation, could lead the imagination into many areas such as growth, transpiration, air pollution, strength, resistance to change and pressures, openness to change throughout the seasons, death and recreation, phallic symbols and fecundity, nutrition and nesting, etc. etc. but does this make it a work of art.  Some would say yes – some would say no.  Does it have to be beautiful to qualify as art? Does it have to be in contrasty black and white or in glorious full colour? Does it have to be in a moody and obscuring mist or stark in silhouette against sunset?  I don’t know! Does it have to have a murder committed beneath its boughs or a body buried in its roots to be art?  Again I don’t know!  But in what way would that image of the tree differ from the image of a slide in a park or a dog in a landscape if it had that context? I don’t believe that it does differ.  A photograph of a tree could be art just as much as it could be documentary and vice versa.  I have seen them portrayed as either.

I suggested in the opening section of this piece that there was still a limit as to how much I was able to access the meaning and power behind the ‘Sectarian Murder’ images even after knowing the location and context and I will explore that a little more now. We all know that murders take place in ‘normal’ hum drum locations in amongst the trappings of every day lives.  We have documentary images on the television and in the newspapers daily depicting such things and now whenever a murder is reported we imagine a park, or a piece of woodland or a secluded lane or a council house, the sort of place that would normally have no dark and sinister undertones.  It is then no large leap of the imagination to picture the attack and resulting body with all the detail that goes with such atrocities.  Crime dramas fill in the gaps that our own experience leaves.

The depiction in Seawright’s images of just these sort of mundane locations with their connotations of pain and death therefore do not move me in the way that they might as the impact is blunted by an element of familiarity.  If they were places known to me and with which I had a personal connection as Seawright does, then maybe the impact would be greater.  It certainly would be if I knew the victim.  Also, if the exact location where the body lay was marked within the image then that would provide a real connection.  As it is, the images remain clearly in the realm of news and documentary for me, and I experience no greater exploration of thoughts and ideas than would be sparked by a news article on the television or in the newspaper.

A question that these images and Seawright’s comments in the interview has raised for me is this.  If, as he suggests, it is important to him that an image of his engages with the viewer and draws them in to the work, then what is there to draw in and engage the viewer in an image that does not conform to the usual measures of interest, impact, attractiveness and composition as these images do not?  In common with many (the majority?) of contemporary art photographs that I see in books and magazines, these images do nothing to attract, intrigue or hold me and if it were not for the accompanying texts which gave me context I would not have spent any more time on them.  For Seawright, context and location are important clues to assist the viewer on their journey towards finding meaning in a work or series of works.  By implication are images without, title, context or location pointers meaningless?  Or is it that an artist who does not provide such clues is uninterested in what meanings a consumer finds or indeed whether the consumer finds any meanings at all.   

So many contemporary ‘art’ photographs have no title and no apparent context and so without the dedication of considerable time and effort to researching the artist and their work and trying to make links, no clues will be found.  If the works do not have the power and draw to persuade the viewer to engage with them then I believe that it would be unlikely that the viewer would take the time to do the research.  I know I wouldn’t unless I had to do a study of the artist for a project or some such other purpose and that would be done with little enthusiasm.  If, as Seawright suggests, the meaning of a work needs to be found by the viewer, how does one know when one has found a relevant meaning?  Who is to say that the meanings to be found are worth finding?  

To explore this further I looked at some of Seawright’s other work series and found that they raised the same questions and problems for me.  A series entitled ‘The Forest’, for instance, comprised a small collection of images depicting roadway edges, bushes and woodland edges partially in darkness and partially lit by orange or reddish lighting.  When exhibited, these works apparently had no texts or other clues as to the artist’s aims and inspirations and the meaning of the works was left unclear and ambiguous.   It apparently had something to do with the fear experienced at the edges of light and dark and of open and enclosed spaces, but it left me bemused and unimpressed as did the other works that I looked at which all seemed to touch on the theme of boundaries between red light and darkness and inhabited and uninhabited space. On the basis of this brief exploration of his oeuvre I would not approach one of his exhibitions or publications with much enthusiasm, particularly if it was defined as art.  

—  o0o  —


It seems to me from Seawright’s verbal statements in the video that the differentiation between ‘art’ photographs and ‘documentary’ photographs is both clear and important to him. For him, ‘art’ photographs are worthy of greater contemplation and effort on the part of the consumer than are ‘documentary’ photographs and are somehow on a higher aesthetic plane. This stems from their ambiguity and the space that they leave open for the viewer to find meaning within.

‘Documentary’ photographs, i.e. those where ambiguity is reduced or absent, are, for him, good only for quick consumption purely as information sources or for instant impact.  The planning, technical and operational skills required to take the ‘documentary’ images, although perhaps equal to or exceeding those involved in an ‘art’ photograph, are of no relevance to him when making the distinction.

This seems to me to be an entirely arbitrary and meaningless distinction.  I personally can usually find as much or more to fire my interest and imagination in a ‘documentary’ photograph as I can in a contemporary ‘art’ photograph.  Indeed applying the label of ‘art’ to an image very often puts me off the piece largely because my preconception of what makes a photograph ‘artistic’ does not tally with contemporary thinking.  I know that the concept of photography as an art form took a long while to be accepted and that it did so initially through adopting the same sort of styles and subjects as traditional art.  I also recognise that in recent years the style and presentation of photographic ‘art’ has changed radically such that it is no longer as easily understood or as accessible to the casual observer.  However, the contemporary art field seems to me to be largely based on pretension and unjustified valuation of work to such an extent that I don’t trust it or myself.

For me a photograph is a photograph is a photograph. It is not an ‘art’ photograph or a documentary photograph or any other classification of photograph.  It is either an image that interests me, hooks me in and holds me, or it is not.  Sometimes the hooking me in and holding takes a rather longer period of contemplation than at other times, but an essential prerequisite to my engagement with an image is that I find interest in it.  Labelling a piece of work as an ‘artwork’ would, if anything, set me against it as it is suggesting that I should view it in a different way to any other sort of photograph as it is somehow on some sort of a higher plane. Attaching a label of ‘art’ to a photograph is telling me more about the artist than about the work.

If I had the choice of visiting a gallery which was showing contemporary art photography or another showing documentary photography I would choose the latter. The reason for my choice is that I would trust the work in the documentary exhibition to be more grounded, honest, accessible and memorable than in the art exhibition.  The label that one puts on a photograph tells one nothing about the photograph but it can say a lot about how the labeller expects others to view it.

—–   o0o   —–





———-     o0o     ———-

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