Staged photography is the conscious arrangement of people and objects in an environment. In staged photography, the photographer also takes on the role of a director and sometimes of an actor/performance artist. Within this genre, the images are always arranged/artificial scenes created solely for the purpose of being photographed.
Staged photography is everywhere around us, in social media, in advertising, in our private albums. They almost always include a message for the viewer or playing on emotions. No matters if you are a professional photographer or an amateur, both have felt they once wanted to rewind time to have the chance to take the perfect photograph. We all know how it feels when we just missed a “Kodak moment”.
Working with staged photography, you create that moment yourself, but it doesn’t have to be a happy memory you need to recreate. In staged photography you have the freedom to choose the memories you want to recreate or thoughts you want to explore and at the same time feel control of.
A staged photograph, is a fictitious staging, created by the photographer with the definite purpose to create a new image. The photographer often reveals that it is a staged photograph, which means that it cannot be perceived as a traditional documentary image. The photograph becomes the photographer’s representation of a memory, an idea, thought or event. The conscious act of a staging, in which the photographer makes very careful choices to control the scene, applies even if the intention is to give the image a spontaneous feeling or appearance.
In the early 1990s, Annika Elisabeth von Hausswolff became one of the most influential artists in Sweden. In her artistic work she uses stagings and an associative imagery to create images. von Hausswolff’s artistic work also includes working with space in her exhibitions, where photographs are often combined with everyday objects that can also appear in the images.
I interviewed Annika Elisabeth von Hausswolff about her creative process in making staged photography. I chose to ask her about how she in her own projects often relates to realistic situations (e.g. crime scenes) and why she thinks that it is of importance to her. I also set out to discover what von Hausswolff believes happens to her as an artist, when she chooses to stage “an event,” rather than depicting it through documentary imagery.
On the question to von Hausswolff what it means to her as an artist to stage photographs based on realistic situations, she answered:
Using a genre’s appearance and visual codes and the pre-understanding of these, is for me a rhetorical approach. When my staged photographs “resemble” reality, there is a creative gap in the interpretation of the image in question. I simply use the documentary imagery to suggest to the viewer that this could be real. The power then lies in the fact that it is actually staged and there is a bridge between my idea (the conceptual) and the experience of the image (the documentary).
I also asked von Hausswolff what she thinks happens inside her as an artist when she chooses to stage “an event” instead of retelling it through documentary images. I was curious about how another artist works and thinks about the importance of staging. When I work with staged photography I like the feeling of being in control even though I never can control everything. von Hausswolff states that:
I draw inspiration from other images in combination with my own experiences of being human. To stage images is for me a more credible representation as I only have to consider my own ideas, feelings and opinions in order to create images. Photographing “reality” means partly that I am faced with far too many choices, and partly too much responsibility that I am not prepared to take. As a documentary photographer, you have obligations to what you represent, that I, as an artist, do not have to take into account.
I can really relate to the feeling that working with staged photography there is a freedom, a freedom in the way you only need to consider your own ideas and visual goal. The freedom of not consider anything else than my own thoughts. Maybe that is the key motivation for me to work with this genre, both having freedom and control at the same time is something I as a photographer can identify with. In life in general it is not often you have that combined feeling.
Magnum Photos nominee Diana Markosan, born in Moscow 1989, who is both photographer and writer, explores the power of staged documentary in her photographic series Santa Barbara. In this series she collaborates with the scriptwriter of the (soap opera) TV series by the same title. Markosan casts actors to play her own family and travels back to her childhood home to re-enact her arrival to America with her brother and mother. Her photographs in this series are completely staged and the scenes made from her memories feel authentic and truthful. They are like opening a diary and reading someone’s inner thoughts. Markosan is very open about her staging of the photographs in Santa Barbara. The involvement of the scriptwriter was a crucial part of the project.
Markosan works with full control of staging in these series to capture moments from her past. They are staged in the same way as the following examples in this article. Markosan also works with documentary photography in a traditional way and is often introduced as a photographer who and her photographs successfully convince me that she is telling her story truthfully, as she remembers it. Through her photography she works through memories and the past in order to try to understand both her absent father and her mother.
This is also important for me as an artist working with the genre staged photography, working through memories in my projects trying to understand what happened in the past and how it effects the present and maybe even the future. Working with staged photography maybe always plays with being able to jump in time like in a time machine, both with bringing in the artist memories, experiences and subconscious.
In an artist talk at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Jeff Wall articulates his thoughts behind his photographic image Boy falls from tree (2010). He says that the photograph is created from a memory of being a child falling from a tree and breaking his arm. What I find interesting in this interview, is that he also explains that memory does not belong to him. Many people have had that childhood experience of falling from a tree. So, this makes me wonder, can this image be more honest, more connected to real memories, of our experiences of childhood mistakes, more than other more documentary photographs of birthdays, holidays et cetera? And does that in that case mean this image is more realistic even though it is completely arranged and set up?
Jeff Wall explains that when he works with staged photography, it is in the same way as a cinematographer would work with moving image. He has to think about visual elements, including lighting, framing, composition, lens choices, depth of field, zoom, focus, color, exposure, and filtration. Through these choices, Wall’s method resembles that of film director, more than a traditional photographer.
The way in which Jeff Wall work with memories and experiences can be an important insight into and way to visually represent reality. Wall’s photograph of a boy falling from a tree can, for example, be interpreted as the reproduction of a feeling of a true event. The image captures the power of falling and the feeling of knowing that one or someone else has made a mistake, a memory that we can all certainly relate to from childhood. The image of the boy falling is a good example of how an orchestrated photograph can trigger something else in us. Perhaps we find it harder to put up a shield and protect ourselves, because staged photography often plays upon emotions and memories.
I think that it can be important for the viewer to get the information that the photograph is conceptual and staged, like in Markosan’s series Santa Barbara. When you know the facts, you can see beyond them when you look at the photographs. You can hear her voice through the images, she presents her truth about her memories, which she tells the viewer through her photographic series.
I conclude that the most important thing that photographers, working with staged or documentary photography has the intention to tell their truth about an event, memory, situation, interaction or feelings. A staged photograph can tell the same “truth” about being a human as a documentary, if it feels authentic and honest. The experience that a staged photography can be authentic and honest is, as I see it, dependent on whether the design is perceived as true within its own frame story, that the photographer has related to the imaginary world of the story in a credible way. In Jeff Wall’s boy falls from a tree, he has chosen a regular backyard as a stage with an ordinary garden shed, a broom, a wheelbarrow, a swing hanging in a tree, all objects and a scene that could have been taken in the backyard of many gardens. It is a scene that we can recognize ourselves in and that could be documentary photograph. The frame story in Jeff Wall’s photography is believable and the boy who falls belongs in the story. If the photographer tells us something they believe is true, they can convince us in same way with staged photography or at least they can convince us that they believe that it is a “truth”. And maybe that is more important for us when we want to connect and reflect over situations happening to others and ourselves.
The significance for me working with the genre staged photography is the conscious arrangement of people and objects in an environment. In my work I take the role of the director and the actor in a purpose to try to create a scene that comes from my memory. In my work it has been important for me to try and retell an experience. The ritual of staging, lightning and photographing makes me feel in control of my experience. It has been important for me not to make myself a victim in a chain of events, but try to describe the world that I have come out of, the world where I do not want to be. It has been a healing process.
The frame of the story is the familiar every day that an outside observer recognizes. However, it is an illusion and behind the scenes there is another story, more foreign and difficult to understand. The story only becomes understandable when you have the keys to unlock the closed rooms. Keys in this sense can be titles, props, lightning, sets, arrangements together with the narratives together awakening memories/flashback in the viewer.
For me, some considerations have been central to the project and it is mainly about how revealing I should be. How personal can I feel comfortable being for my own part and how do I protect other people in the story? The choice to make the story in the form of staged photography and not as a documentary project allows me to control what I omit and which people appear in the photo project.
Bild: Suddenly, through an opening, the spring light fell into the room, Marie Barthelsson 2020.
 I samband med Annika von Hausswolff, exhibition; Grand Theory Hotel, Hasselblad Center 27/2 – 15/5 2016.)
C. Garcia, Erin Photography as Fiction, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2010.
Goysdotter, Moa Impure Visions, American staged art photography of the 1970s, Nordic Academic press, 2013.
Köhler, Michael Constructed Realities, The Art of Staged Photography, Kunstverein München, 1995.
Markosan, Diana Santa Barbara, https://www.dianamarkosian.com/santa-barbara, (accessed 6 dec 2020).
von Hausswolff, Annika, Grand Theory Hotel, Hasselblad Center 27/2 – 15/5 2016.)
Wall, Jeff Tableaux Pictures Photographs, 1996 – 2013, by Kunsthaus Bregenz, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and authors Yilmaz Dziewior, Hripsimé Visser and Camiel van Winkel 2014.
Wall, Jeff North & West, Audain Art Museum, 2016.