Kerstin looks in to the camera, she is wearing a blue patterned sweater.
Photo: Maja Kristin Nylander

Research on the relationship between photography and reality


A handbook of documentary photography: that’s one way to describe Kerstin Hamilton’s doctoral thesis. In her research, she examines contemporary society’s resistance to and uncertainty about documentary depiction. She takes on its negative image as being merely a fly on the wall and creates a tool for conversation and awareness about the challenges – and opportunities – that documentary photography is confronting.

How can we create an accurate representation of a reality that is not our own? That is on overarching question addressed in doctoral candidate Kerstin Hamilton’s thesis at HDK-Valand. In her artistic research, the core of which is on view in the exhibition Dear Truth: Documentary Strategies in Contemporary Photography at the Hasselblad Center, she strives to illuminate our complex relationship to documentary photography. 

“In art school programmes, ‘documentary’ has become a derogatory term,” says Hamilton. “Few people want to use it to describe their work, and there’s this need to take a position against the negative image of a documentary photographer who sees herself as a fly on the wall. A common stance is that there’s no boundary between fact and fiction – or in any case that such a boundary is not particularly relevant.” 

Hamilton does not share this viewpoint, however. 

“Not using the term ‘documentary photo’ is like saying that everything is the same thing. And it’s not. There are research-based working methods in which artists use facts to support what is presented in their artistic practice – in contrast to an artist that maybe builds up a scene and bases their work entirely on themselves. If the distinction between them gets lost, you also lose the incentive to work with documentary photography.” 

Hamilton has done a spatial mapping of the field of documentary photography through the Dear Truth exhibition. She curated the exhibition, in which several internationally established photographic artists take on problems that are rooted in society. At the same time, she used the exhibition as an opportunity to examine documentary photography and its potential to portray another person’s reality objectively.

“The exhibition was a tool for me to address these issues,” says Hamilton. “It’s empirical research based on interviews with artists.” 

Kerstin står vid ett bord med tidningar, hon håller i en som hon tittar på.
Photo: Maja Kristin Nylander

She analyses the artists’ approaches and looks more closely at concepts such as reflexivity, self-criticism, one’s own role and ethical judgements. Her research takes a broad look at the field that also encompasses editing, film, writing and conceptual perspectives. The results are concrete proposals for specific approaches and solutions.

In several of her own artistic projects, Hamilton takes an interest in science generally and natural science in particular. That has coloured her artistic research, which deals with concepts that commonly feature in the natural sciences, such as objectivity and experimentation.

Another important science in her life is political science. It was when she studied that subject at university in the early 2000s that the course of her future career began to take form.

“There were a few of us in my class who formed a photo club and developed pictures in the darkroom together,” she says. “That was fantastic. The combination of political science and photography made me realise that I wanted to use the camera as a tool for addressing important social issues.” 

When she then went through a four-year photography programme in Dublin followed by a master’s degree at what was then called the College of Photography and Film, the seed was planted for what would become her thesis. 

“I discovered that I and others who were working in a documentary tradition were meeting with resistance – and not just from our surroundings, but from ourselves as well,” says Hamilton.  “There is an uncertainty and a doubt about documentary depictions.”

In her research, she traces that uncertainty back to a fear of exploiting someone who is already vulnerable – a fear of categorising, judging and exoticising.

“It’s hard to have the courage, and the energy, to get involved in these issues. But I think it’s important to not let that hold us back. Documentary photography has a role to play when it comes to portraying the really big, burning questions.”

Kerstin Hamilton hopes that her research will contribute new perspectives and spark conversations that can strengthen photographers in their documentary work.

“Most photographers are already extremely aware of these issues. They have a sophisticated way of questioning their own pictures – they have it instinctively.”

 By Åsa Rehnström

Fact box

Name of Kerstin Hamiltons thesis: The Objectivity Laboratory: Propositions on Documentary Photography.

She will defend her thesis April 8 2022.