“Documentary, long an interpretive genre, has generally been regarded as a vehicle for factual information, but this is up for review as audiences shift effortlessly among social media, traditional media, game consoles and galleries, becoming accustomed to reading images less literally.” (Mayes, 2014: 34)

“Experimentation does not supplant the evidential role of the image, though it does force a reconsideration of the photograph as evidence. Photography now exists in a world that is fluent in visual metaphor and understands the image beyond the limitations of the merely representational.” (Mayes, 2014: 35)

Thomas Keenan (Keenan and Steyerl, 2014) notes that the word document in English comes from the Latin docere, to teach. The earliest uses cited by the “Oxford English Dictionary” associate document less with evidence than with instruction. The document, he argues, is doubled as exemplum: it constitutes a trace, which is pedagogically oriented toward the future. One needs to learn from it. Today, however, rather than teaching us something, the documentary genre often seems to be designed to shut down deliberation, to impose the force of fact, and to generate a decision or a judgement.

Hito Steyerl (Keenan and Steyerl, 2014) notes that when a picture of an atrocity spreads on Facebook, there are no fact-checks, no evidentiary procedures whatsoever. Yet once launched, any kind of document, whether it actually even documents anything, can go on to create a new reality by means of the constituency that shared, spread, sustained and built it.

So within the last 25 years, Steyerl argues, we have experienced a massive shift from the document as evidence, replete with eternal anxiety over whether it is true or accurate or not, to the document as trigger and catalyst of events. Thus, documenting has become more of a live activity and less about retroactive interpretation of objects. Documenting is the making, i.e. live streaming, editing, encoding, encrypting, dissemination and mediation, not only of the documents themselves but equally, and maybe more importantly, of the events being documented. The event is being made across different platforms and networks, as a stack of actions, images and feedback loops, travelling from cloud to cobblestone.

People want to make a record of what is happening, but they also want to do something with it, such as tell a story, make a claim, send it and show it to others, let it loose.

They are also making evidence, not in the sense of proof but rather in the more forensic sense of making something evident, presenting it to a public, calling for a judgment.

Conceptual chain: Methodology – Evidence – the Evidential (epistemological status) – Making evident – the Production of evidence – Generating evidence – Methods for generating evidence – Manufacturing evidence – Empirical work – Evidential work – Making something evident – Bringing something to Attention (cf); Making evident – Making public

Note on the Evidential, as epistemological status, posits a specific field of relations to a world, on the one hand, and to a body of knowledge, on the other hand, such that  a material element (artefact, ‘object’, ‘subject’, environment, situation, photograph, picture, statement, and so on) can be said to have a specific meaning in a logic of generalisation or universalisation


Mayes, Stephen (2014). Toward a new documentary expression. Aperture 214, Spring 2014, pp.32-35.