Essay: The Provocative Landscape

Photography has changed the way we see images today. It has been employed in so many different aspects of our life, across a whole range of cultural and social uses that provocative imagery have become part of the norm in catching our attention and responses. However, the concepts of provocativeness in photography and its theoretical concerns have been a rarely discussed subject and thus cannot be ignored. Some topic highlights in my area of investigation include:

  • About Activism in photography
  • About Landscape in Activism photography
  • What does ‘Provocative Landscape’ means?
  • Establishing the varying degrees of ‘provocativeness’
  • Can there be synergy between authenticity and manipulation?
  • How can landscape images promote new thinking and make a difference in the world?

What provocative is, and what is it not? 

The definition of “provocative” is to call forth an emotion, usually anger or infuriate. It may also mean to act as a stimulus or incitement. In other words, there has to be a common subject that people can relate to or a catalyst that trigger such responses. In photography, the term “provocative” is usually associated with the human body, in realms of the sensual eroticism and nudity, as well as violent scenes of war and human death. However, these themes of the human body are not so relevant in the landscape context. What is relevant here, as this research explores, is how “provocative” can be applicable in the landscape genre and how landscape photographers and artists have created visuals that make people think or respond, be it positive or negative impact.

Theoretical Concerns

This field of research would give me a better understanding of how photographers can promote new ways of thinking by adopting different stances of provocative imagery to influence people. In defining what ‘Provocative landscapes’ means to me, some of the key issues in my research include concerns of activism photography from the historical perspective, establishing the varying degrees of ‘provocativeness’, as well as questioning the synergy between authenticity and manipulation. Though not exhaustive, this research aims to persuade “provocative landscape’ as a possible subgenre in the landscape photography.


Contextual Review

Some of the important references beneficial to my field of research include the works of photographers such as Thomas Annan, Lewis Hine, Ansel Adams, Sebastiao Saldago, Luc Delahaye, Paul Seawright, Edward Burtynsky, Nick Brandt, Kelly Richardson, Pedro Meyers and Michael Gordon. Other key figures include photography authors and critics Liz Wells, Michelle Bore, Fontacuberta, William Stott, Ken Light, Fred Ritchin and David Allan Mellor.

In addition, I have also considered online and video sources from various organisations that have promoted these photographers’ works: TedTalk, ffotogallery publication, The Guardian.

Relevancy of Citations

The interpretation of documentary photography is complicated, multi-layered and nuanced. In ‘Critical Photography’, Liz Wells examines the relationship between photojournalism and documentary photography, which can be related to as a form of investigation to address existing social or political situation. She objectively highlighted the issues of its authenticity in the documentary, noting the complex of the technical, socio-political and cultural changes affecting the whole visual culture in photography (Wells, 2000).

Similarly in ‘Photography as Activism’, Michelle Bogre explored the philosophical and historical aspects of the photography’s role in social reform and how it has influenced people (Bogre, 2012). For instance, during the Industrial Revolution, Scottish photographer Thomas Annan surveyed the living and working conditions of the poor from an architectural perspective, while American photographer Lewis Hine was concerned with child labour issues, often depicting his subjects in their environment. Ansel was committed to making social and political changes with the conservation of the western wilderness.

In ‘Documentary Expression and Thirties America’, having studied the wide-ranging view of documentary photography of America during the thirties, William Stott explains how documentary photographers of those times were able to influence people and the methods they use to persuade (Stott, 1986). However, in ‘Witness in our time’, through Sebastiao Saldago’s ideologies of activism photography, Ken Light argued that photographers have to constantly adopt new strategies to address the obstacles and opportunities created by the rapid media changes and cross-cultural contact as the times changed (Light, 2000).

This was evident when early war and conflicts came and propelled activism photography to new heights, where civilian viewers became de-sensitized to deaths and destruction in actual battlefields. Regardless of the landscapes being symbolically replicated, it presented a reality of the atrocities from the photographer’s perspective, as shown in the book ‘Conflict, time, photography’ (David Alan Mellor, n.d.), thus causing people to respond and take actions.

Found examples include French photojournalist Luc Delahaye who demonstrated aestheticizing conflict and death could be a means to provoke interest (O’Hagan, 2011), while Paul Seawright preferred a more subtle approach to his landscapes (ffotogallery, 2003). Edward Burtynsky believed that he could present a dialectic discussion of his environmental concerns through the use of the available visual elements in the landscape (TedTalk, 2009). In Nick Brandt’s “Inherit the Dust”, he presented a giant panorama of life-sized animals prints in a barren, human-dominated landscape without the dependence of digital manipulation (Zhang, 2016). However, Kelly Richardson proved that by embracing digital technologies, thought-provoking statements can be created just as effectively (Richardson, 2012).

Similarly, in Pedro Meyer’s ‘Truths and Fictions’, Fontacuberta defended the documentary photographer’s position of embracing digital manipulation in activism photography, stressing  that by avoiding the judgement of its negative connotations, the traditional rules does not warrant a stamp of authenticity while new tools should permit new approaches (Meyer, 1995).

In ‘Bending the Frame’, Fred Ritchin examines the evolving media and political landscapes in the paradigms of Photojournalism and documentary photography and explains how new and emerging contemporary visual media may use various strategies and innovative approaches to solving problems and impact the society (Ritchin, 2013).

Thus this paper concludes with American photographer Michael Gordon’s believes, that landscape photographs may not necessarily mean the need to represent any realities and truths; for as long as it has metaphorical meanings infused, it can capture the viewer’s attention for a longer time (Michael E. Gordon, 2009).

I have refined my essay down into five chapters, including the introduction. In each chapter, I have listed some topics I would touch upon, as well as photographers I would highlight in my essay.

The first part of this paper establishes the definition of provocative in the context of the landscape and further examines its philosophical concepts in relation to the art of persuasion from the cultural history, socio-political and personal perspectives.  Once this task has been satisfied, the text will proceed to examine the technological and the ethical aspects, the various strategies contemporary landscape photographers today have taken to created such provocative images.


  • Establishing what “provocative” is and what is it not
    William Stott| Sebastiao Saldago 

History in Retrospective

  • Activism photography
  • Conflict photography
    Thomas Annan | Lewis Hine | Robert Capa 

The Provocative Image

  • The Archives & Technology
  • The Controversial
  • The Dialectical
  • The Rhetoric
    Oliviero Toscani | Chloe Dewe Mathews | Pedro Meyer

The Provocative Landscape

  • What does it mean?
  • Strategies in making landscapes provocative
    Luc Delahaye | Paul Seawright | Edward Burtynsky | Nick Brandt | Kelly Richardson

The Viral Factor

  • Ethics of publishing
  • Synergy of authenticity and manipulation
  • People and technology
  • Multimedia and beyond
    Nick Ut | Steve McCurry


  • Provocative images matter
  • What makes landscape provocative (A summary)

    Michael Gordon


By dissecting the complex visual culture, this paper attempts to unravel aspects of ‘provocativeness’ in photography and assert its relevance to the landscapes. Yet the aim of this paper is not simply to present a study of how such images are made. Instead, the objective is to investigate the role of the provocative landscape by analysing how such images have influenced and persuade people today. I hope this research would be useful not only in informing my third year but as well as my future photography works and practices.



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