B. Lessard.Unrepresentable Bruno Blessard abstract

Real Suffering: The Ethics of Documentary Photography


What can we learn from psychoanalysis in the age of neuroscience, speculative realism, and non-philosophy? For example, what can it teach us about the ethics of documentary photography? This paper will offer a compelling account of the ways in which documentary photography has articulated the relationship between the Real, suffering, and ethics. Drawing upon a vast array of documentary photographers’ often shocking images of poverty, exclusion, marginality, violence, exploitation, suffering bodies, and trauma, I will claim that documentary photography has been one of the most successful, yet still unrecognized visual media in “representing the unrepresentable.”

As a realm that is said to be “unrepresentable,” the Real resists symbolization, representation, and entry into language. But does that mean that it successfully resists the language of documentary photography, the ontology of the still image, and its affordances? The paper will turn to the ontology of the still image to show that documentary photography, because it does not rely upon narrative storytelling or talking heads, opens up a space for empathy and reflection that is unique to it as a visual medium and prompts a singular ethical confrontation with the Real and suffering. Documentary photography will be shown to call for a contemplative ethical stance, being predicated upon the desire to know using the still image. The “repetition compulsion” of documentary photography – that is, to photograph again and again suffering individuals – has been the unstated modus operandi at the heart of the practice for decades, and it demands an ethical gaze ready to confront suffering in still images.

As opposed to film studies in the 1970s, photography studies did not build upon psychoanalytic theory to establish itself as a field. Detoured by the more traditional approaches of art history, photography theory suffers from a lack of theoretical sophistication, and it still relies too much upon its two cornerstones, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (La chambre claire) and Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which were published more than 30 years ago. This paper will posit that, however invaluable the insights found in these pioneering publications may be, we need to construct a theoretical apparatus for photography that will draw upon psychoanalysis in order to tackle the Real, trauma, and suffering, and go beyond the purely phenomenological account of photography found in Barthes. The diverse writings of Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, and Alenka Zupancic, deeply inspired by Lacanian thought as they are, will help to formulate a psychoanalytically oriented documentary photography theory.

The paper will be illustrated using documentary photographs by Jacob Riis (Denmark / US), Lewis Hine (US), Dorothea Lange (US), Zhao Tielin (China), Zhang Xinmin (China), Carl De Keyzer (Belgium), Sebastiao Salgado (Brazil), Eugene Richards (US), Gilles Peress (France), Krass Clement (Denmark), and Kent Klich (Sweden). The international coverage will ensure that the documentary photography tradition is well covered in all its multifaceted developments to tackle the ultimate question the paper will ask: Is documentary photography about real suffering, or is it about the Real suffering, begging to be acknowledged by way of human beings suffering?


Bruno Lessard, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

School of Image Arts

Ryerson University

Toronto, ON CANADA


Bruno Lessard is an Assistant Professor in the School of Image Arts at Ryerson University in Toronto, where he teaches in the Documentary Media MFA program. He has published extensively in the fields of interactive media arts, contemporary cinema, film music, and video games, and he has given conference papers on topics as diverse as digital animation, Dogma 95, and Chinese documentary film and photography. His current research project focuses on Western and Chinese photographers who have documented the great urban, environmental, and social changes that China has seen in the last 20 years.