Documentary Images: Power, Pleasure, and Knowledge

Spring 2019 quarter

Taught by

communication, media and community studies

You photograph the natural life, but you also...create an interpretation of it. – John Grierson, First Principles of Documentary

To photograph means putting one’s self into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and therefore, like power. –Susan Sontag, On Photography

What is documentary? Since the birth of documentary photography and the earliest documentary films, makers, viewers, and critics have sought to articulate the appeal, challenge, and fascination of documentary images. Documentaries have challenged or confirmed fundamental ways of seeing, provided aesthetic pleasure, told gripping stories, argued political questions, and created troubling ethical dilemmas. Even as documentary forms change over time, they continue to offer complex experiences that both confirm and problematize what it means to know something in the world and reproduce it as an image.

We’ll explore the development of documentary in photography and film from the perspective that documentary has always been highly experimental, as filmmakers sought to develop images and narrative structures adequate to their subject matter. Central to our inquiry will be a consideration of the politics of representation, and how filmmakers and photographers from marginalized constituencies are constructing new images of identity, culture, history, and memory; both building on and subverting representations that previously defined them.

Each week we will view documentary films, videos, and photographs, and discuss readings in documentary history and theory. We will learn about the broader artistic, cultural, and political movements that influenced documentary expression. Students will learn fundamentals of film and photographic analysis, and write two short thought pieces on specific films or photographs, building up to an integrative essay on a documentary movement or maker. Students will also learn basic skills in digital photography and video and will have the opportunity to work individually or collaboratively to develop a short film or photographic series.

Program Details

Fields of Study

media arts media studies moving image

Preparatory For

media studies, media production, journalism, and cultural criticism.


Spring Open

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning