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Embracing Subjectivity in The Grey Line by Jo Metson Scott

Two years ago, Allan Sekula proposed the premise that all 'new documentary' had a tendency towards 'subjectivism' and 'authorial self-revelation' 1. Jo Metson Scott's five year project, The Grey Line is a good example of what Sekula meant by this seemingly contradictory statement. Contradictory, because documentary photography (or film for that matter), has typically been aligned with a detachment of the photographer from an area of study; the myth of objectivity and the delusion that one's presence as witness does not influence the results.

Sekula's and others' postmodern criticisms of documentary photography are nothing new to the world of contemporary photography. "Art" has now become one of the ways in which documentary photography is now visible due to its acceptance into the canon. Indeed Metson Scott's socio-politically motivated project is very much positioned within an art context. Her inquiry into armed forces personnel who have gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) on moral grounds and conscience, is explored subjectively as a personalised perspective. As some documentary practices adopt codes of journalism, which could now be read as a 'journalistic turn', Metson Scott both recognises and subverts such conventions to create an accessible yet very personal project.

The 'journalistic turn' can be defined as an approach which exposes research and constructs the work using text/image formats. Taryn Simon's A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters and Jim Goldberg's Open See are recent examples where transparency reveals the collection and gathering of information and the photographers desire to understand the subject as opposed to simply turning up to shoot. This seeks to legitimise complex stories despite the medium's inherent reductive characteristics. Clearly visible in the work, captions and short textual extracts contextualise the material in a manner similar to the way magazine and newspaper articles append photographs to text. This has the effect of structuring the content and also providing it in a format which is well accepted and familiar to us through publishing. The authority and ethics that come from news media sources conform to our expectations of how the 'truth' is told. Yet Metson Scott precludes this by exposing her sketchbooks, which through their honesty and direct relationship to her research add an extra layer of authenticity to the work. We don't appear to be looking at highly mediated, edited and polished work or a 'dumbing down' for the masses; instead, we are taken through Metson Scott's own diaristic entries and processes. An example of how self-reflexivity might add authenticity to documentary practice.

Does empathy drive documentary photography and also our desire to look at Metson Scott's work? Perhaps it does so through this humanitarian connection with the unfortunate experiences of those who have been overlooked by society and ostracised unfairly. This work speaks of the results of being part of the war apparatus and having to live through the consequences of tackling difficult decisions head-on. It shows how war photography has shifted its direction towards home, where survival for these ex-soldiers takes on a different form. Furthermore, home is something we can all relate to and this work brings the effects of war to our doorsteps. Metson Scott's subjectivity is projected onto us and becomes the channel by which we can be informed and if moved enough, to act. It publicises the subject without the often sensationalised mediation we have become suspicious of. Documentary in this way - by embracing subjectivity ¬¬- renews its validity in the face of its own potential collapse through changing attitudes to authority and systems of power.

We can't be sure of what it feels like to be one of these former soldiers who chose not to participate; photographs alone can't possibly do that. But we can be sure of Metson Scott's work which through sensitive and careful study allows us into her subjective world of wanting to know and feel for the people she's given a voice to.

Sunil Shah
October 2013.

1.Sekula, Allan, Eleven Premises on Documentary and a Question' in Mutations, Persepctives on Photography, Paris Photo/Steidl, 2011, p. 265.