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  • Excursions Beyond the Frame
  • Catherine Zuromskis (bio)
The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning by John Tagg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Pp. 392, 65 black-and-white photos. $82.50 cloth, $27.50 paper.

In the days following the disastrous earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, I became aware of a striking phenomenon. With concrete information on the depth and breadth of the devastation hard to come by, news sources turned, as they often do, to evocative and affecting photographs. For almost a week following the disaster, the New York Times online ran a slide-show feature as its lead story. The photographs were painful to look at and at times bordered on exploitative—one wonders what the late Susan Sontag would have had to say about the discourse of victimhood and the "pain of others" on display here. There is certainly nothing new about this type of social documentary photography; the visual rhetoric of suffering has been well established as a journalistic conceit since the 1930s. But here, I was struck by the degree to which this visual barrage of suffering Haitians injured and in pain, mourning the dead, or begging for help in rescuing loved ones trapped under piles of rubble did not simply illustrate the lead story: it was the story. With little more than dry contextual captions, the pictures were meant to speak the unspeakable for themselves, "to show" as that foundational institution of documentary photography, Life magazine, once put it, rather than to tell. Coverage on National Public Radio (NPR) in the days immediately following the earthquake [End Page 145] often took a photographic form, as well. Reporting from the streets of Port-au-Prince, correspondent Jason Beaubien, his voice choked with sobs, reverted to simply describing the scene of an ailing young girl, alone, bandaged, and naked, lying under a thin sheet outside an impromptu hospital.1 Knowingly or otherwise, Beaubien drew on his listeners' long-standing cultural familiarity with social documentary to compose a vivid mental snapshot. For those for whom such mental pictures were not evocative enough, announcers frequently reminded listeners that NPR photographer David Gilkey was in Haiti "sending back images of misery in the Caribbean sun," available for viewing at

Natural disasters are, of course, well suited to the visually affective representations of social documentary photography. The lines of victim and concerned onlooker are easily drawn, and there is little moral ambiguity to blur our emotional response when an entire population is devastated by an unforeseen natural event. Yet even in situations where the politics are far more complex, social documentary remains remarkably tenacious public visual rhetoric. In images of the triumphs and tragedies of foreign wars, the physical human drama of the Olympics, the violence and upheaval of political protest, or sentimental moments between Barack Obama, his children, and their new puppy, documentary photographs package the world as a series of symbolic, emotional pictures, prompting affective responses—pity, compassion, national pride, righteous anger—and, in so doing, grounding allegiances to specific political and national ideologies. Moreover, postmodern and media critics from Jean Baudrillard to Fred Ritchin have suggested that the First World has come to experience "reality" increasingly through images.3 As the flow of documentary photography becomes ever more accessible and central to our perception of the world, it becomes ever more important to understand how such images came to construct our perceptions and the ideologies and subjectivities they help to engender. John Tagg's significant and challenging new book, The Disciplinary Frame, seeks to do that and more, first by examining the historical foundations and framing of America's documentary image culture and, second, by attempting to peer around that frame, to explore the possibilities that lie beyond the disciplinary structure of the documentary tradition.

Scholars of photography will certainly be familiar with Tagg's groundbreaking and still seminal collection of essays, The Burden of Representation (1988), which traces the evolution and institutionalization of photography as a disciplinary tool in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Drawing in particular on the work of Louis [End Page 146] Althusser and Michel Foucault, The Burden of Representation makes the case that...


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pp. 145-152
Launched on MUSE
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