As its subtitle suggests – the use of images as historical evidence – Eyewitnessing by Peter Burke, just published in paperback, was written for historians researching the visual and not about documentary photographic practice. So if you’re looking for consolation as you cross the ideological minefields of politics and the media in your pursuit of “documentary photographic truth”, prepare to be disappointed.

Burke investigates a wide range of visual images across the ages, enumerating different theories and approaches that may help unearth the evidence they may contain. The methodology may indeed be helpful to historians looking for formulae in the interpretation of visual sources.

In an effort to retain healthy scepticism and some sort of academic impartiality, Burke encourages a cautious awareness of the rhetorical devices of historical/cultural interpretation and of those implicit in the construction of images at the time of their making. He investigates visual sources from the Bayeaux Tapestry to paintings, etchings, architectural drawings, coins, ceramics, photographs and film.

His approach is equivocal in its accommodation of traditional historiography and contemporary cultural theory.He suggests establishing a “third way”– one that marries conventional historiography (where images have traditionally been subordinate and used as illustration for fact-based text) with the more credible interpretative offerings that can be drawn from image based critical theory such as semiology.

In contemporary culture, where visual imagery has greater dominance than in the past, images and words are still clearly interdependent at the point of conscious recognition.

There are no words in the unconscious, which is why visual imagery is psychologically pervasive. The proverbial saying that “a picture says more than a thousand words”, which Burke quotes at the beginning of his introduction to Eyewitnessing, has I would suggest been misinterpreted. Brought to conscious recognition, a picture may conjure up a thousand words of explanation or more, but the image and interpretation are not substitutes for each other. Photographs of “facts” and words of “fact’”exist in symbiosis over time. Material facts are opaque, their deeper human meaning has to be revealed in discussion. Images are seen and then explained.

Burke’s highest regard for the visual image as historical source is reserved for its less self-conscious dimension – the apparent innocent ability or tendency of a visual source to disclose, unadulterated factual detail to “those who know how to read it”. This is a theme he returns to throughout the book. Eyewitnessing positions the historian rather than the image-maker, as the authoritative interpreter of reality through visual references. For Burke, God, not the devil, is in the detail. Presumably the historian is the conduit to God.

Burke surmises that the un-self-conscious detail of an image may be more revealing of material or social circumstances than the “effect” an image maker may wish to create in “dressing” or “arranging” an image and its occupants (although he admits this may be useful in the investigation of “mentalities”). In this respect he implies that the intentions of documentary photographers are as susceptible to artifice as any other image-maker, citing as examples: the much-debated veracity of Robert Capa’s “Death of a Soldier” from the Spanish Civil War; and Margaret Bourke-White’s interventionism in photographing rural poverty for Life and Fortune magazines in the 1930s.

Due to his continued focus on the isolated photographic image, his take on documentary photography is consequently reductive. He avoids in depth discussion of its moral and political imperatives as these amount to intention and context – the very things that could cloud the historian’s judgment. So, no analysis is made of photographic narrative – the mechanisms of captioned and essay-supported picture sequences in photo-essays, exhibitions, and books. Yet, it’s the association of words and photographs in the picture essay form, which best exemplify documentary’s raison d’être – the humanitarian advocacy in its story telling.

The germ of documentary practice is thus swept under the academic carpet. It doesn’t fit in with the non-partisan “detached” historicism which questions photography’s pretence to objectivity. But Burke has surely been hooked by an old red herring. The science of propaganda and the propaganda of science are two different things. Somehow the scientific pretensions of 19th century anthropological and forensic photography have been conflated with “documentary”, the visual expression of what in the 1930s was a movement towards social democracy.

At its apogee in the 1930s the documentary movement had a political agenda. Its practitioners (across the arts and not just among photographers) were broadly humanist, humanitarian and socially democratic in their intentions. Their photography was far from impartial or neutral, but predicated on notions of political and social democracy. It should be remembered that Robert Capa’s reasoning when establishing Magnum Photos as an autonomous photographers’ agency was political.

When John Grierson the “founding father” of the British Documentary film movement spoke of “documentary” it was with the clear intention of elevating the everyday to the dramatic level – educating the masses by drawing attention to the “drama on the doorstep”. He had no hesitation in employing the montage techniques of Soviet filmmakers to make “reality” more vivid and therefore the experience of “seeing how other people lived” more “real” in the memory of cinemagoers.

Documentary photographers have different ways of storytelling. Many do not stand back from “real life” drama’ and will position themselves and their cameras to exploit this. Others may stand further back, adopting a more detached style. The virtue in documentary photography is in the variety.

Maybe we need to be reminded that the eyewitnesses of documentary photography tell us stories not as if the photographic eye were God but because they are human. “Objective truth” can only ever be the servant of humanitarian intention as an ideal.”Documentary truths” are about the integrity of humanitarian intention. But that’s a larger story, one that is unlikely to be revealed in the detail of a single image.

Mark Windsor