Non-documentary image activism

There are wonderful photographic artists working in the fields of non-documentary, abstract, alternative and historic processes.

Many make their work as a means of expression, of simply sharing a wonderful image, while others are driven by a desire to have more of an impact than just an aesthetic one.

I have previously considered the work of Edward Burtynsky, including in my recent post, Photography and Activism.

His work of the impact of humans on the natural environment often takes on an abstract facade. But he does not purposefully use processes that distort or change what is there, what is real.

I have been fascinated by photographic artists that purposefully use less conventional means of photography to push social, political or environmental agendas. I am one of them. I find resonance with others working in this manner.

A collaboration between Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin created The Day Nobody Died. The body of work made comment on the Afghan war, but not in an expected way.

Travelling with British forces to Helmand province in 2008, the pair took a 50m roll of photographic paper.

Sections of this paper were exposed to the sun before being developed. The resulting effects of the reaction of the paper to UV and chemicals is borne out in vivid, mottled swathes of colour or muted shades that spread across the sheets as if ink in water.

Fig. 1: Broomberg and Chanarin. 2008. The Jail Break, June 12, 2008 (detail). The Day Nobody Died.

They were made to mark significant or mundane events, but the title comes from the only day while they were there that no deaths were recorded.

They describe the work as an “inverse of a traditional reportage image”.

Fig. 2: Broomberg and Chanarin. 2008. Installation view at Barbican Gallery.

It is interesting to read about how during their “embed” their memory sticks were censored. Photos of injured or dead soldiers, results of enemy fire etc. are not considered suitable for sharing.

In my post Ethics of Looking, I noted Alison Nordstrom’s reference to Time magazine’s decision not to show certain images from World War II.

Censoring, or not censoring, images of distress, horror, and nudity is nothing new. With citizen journalism now prevalent on the internet, it is possible that if the powers don’t share it, the public will.

But by making this work, without any ‘real’ reference, Broomberg and Chanarin were able to capture the essence of the situations in non-figurative ways, freeing themselves of the constraints of evidence.

They state: “Our aim was exactly this: to resist or to interrupt the narrative they would have liked us to describe.”

The pair talk about the work as a performance, with the forces personnel becoming unknowing actors and the box of photographic paper its star.

They use John Cage’s 1960’s composition 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence as an example of seeing differently.

In this a pianist walks on stage, lifts the lid of a piano, sits down for the title’s time length, and then gets up and walks off.

There is just the ambient noise of the room, the audience, the weather. Cage wanted people to be present, and that the silence did not mean a lack of something but an opportunity to contemplate. as asking us to listen, to attend.

For Cage, and going back to the Minimalists again, the emptiness of a steel slab sculpture, or the silence during a musical performance, is not simply a negation or deprivation, but an invitation to contemplate – “to look harder”.

The way I have created my work is underpinned by this. By creating something unexpected I am asking the viewer to simply take the time to find out more. To be inquisitive, to start a conversation and to see where it may lead.


Figure 1: BROOMBERG, Adam, and Oliver CHANARIN. 2008.The Day Nobody Died, The Jail Break, June 12, 2008 (detail). [online]. Available at: [accessed August 17, 2018].


BROOMBERG, Adam, and Oliver CHANARIN. 2008. ‘The Day Nobody Died’ [Barbican publication]. [online]. Available at: [accessed August 17, 2018].

PURCELL, Josie. 2018. ‘Photography and Activism. [online]. Available at: [accessed August 17, 2018].

PURCELL, Josie. 2018. ‘Ethics of Looking’. [online]. Available at: [accessed August 17, 2018].

TATE. ‘John Cage”. Available at: [accessed August 17, 2018].