Jim Goldberg

Jim Goldberg

‘Rich and Poor’ 1977 – Kojo Abudu and other writers

It was my tutor that suggested a look at Jim Goldberg. I also come across him in one of the books I was reading about photovoice, that’s a prime example of ethnographic work. This paper by Kojo Abudu is excellent and defines very well the impact that Goldberg has had on social documentary practise presentation. The main example here is from his Rich and Poor series (Abudu, 2020). The black and white images are included in is work together with annotations by the people in the picture.

Within this work of seemingly quotidian and regional significance, Goldberg exposes a plurality of intersecting global power structures at play: the social, political and economic advancement of white women at the expense of women of colour; the invisibilised exploitation of migrant labour, especially within the domestic sphere; and America’s unending failure to deliver one of its foundational promises – equality of opportunity. 

Goldberg’s rather simple approach – his unique combination of anecdotal, handwritten texts by his subjects and straight-forward black and white photography of the subjects in their homes – creates a space of intimacy (between text and image, the personal and the political, photographer and subject, the viewer and the viewed) that allows for a subtle but expansive unearthing of these historical and contemporary societal relations. Such formal methods ushered in a new critical and aesthetic position vis-à-vis the tradition of social documentary photography

Given Goldberg’s primarily aesthetic concerns, or rather, how the aesthetic informs, colludes with, and metamorphosises into the ‘political’, I want to look closely at Goldberg’s juxtaposition of text and image, briefly explicating the (political) implications of his formal methods on the practices and discourses of the documentary photography genre. 

Abudu, 2020

I think that this idea of the political is interesting. It is something that has been in the background of my work for some time, and I have only started thinking about it as I sort the images from my ethnography. I can’t see a place for anchoring text in my own series but that might change with time, however I can see it being an important part of the photovoice project which is about people describing their experiences of mental health issues during locked out. 

“There’s a thread that runs through all the work that is to do with bearing witness,” he told me in 2009. “The photographs are about asking questions, though, not answering them. I’m not a politically radical person. In fact, I’m much more interested in being radical aesthetically.” (O’Hagan, 2014)

I think that this is interesting – the idea of asking questions which has been very much part of my research career. Normally I would have done this by interviews but how do you do this photographically. I want to bear witness to my own experience of shielding or lockdown, but also the experience of others that are marginalised and isolated working from home. 

This colonial/exoticizing/Othering gaze has also seeped into the photodocumentary genre, reproducing violent ways of seeing on the very subjects that socially conscious photographers purport to care for. Goldberg, likely cognisant of the historical power imbalance between photographer and subject, attempts to ameliorate the terms of documentary practice by allowing his photographed subjects to write about themselves. By ascribing agency to his subjects through text, Goldberg sidesteps (at least, partially) the hitherto common problem of alienating the subjects from the work. The final work morphs from a collaborative effort that decentres Goldberg’s subjectivity and – especially when working class, gendered or racialised subjects are involved – resists any conscious or unconscious visual objectification. 

I think that this work done in the 1970’s is a reaction to that ‘Othering’ of people in that it is collaborative and is counter in representing both rich and poor equally.  I think that my photovoice project has to be collaborative; me CS tutor suggested that even if I was to work in a collaboration that I would still retain the primacy of the analysis. I am not sure about that, but my contribution is important

I was interested in this comment in the about do paper “He refers to his multimedia approach as “total documentation” Where the photograph is seen as evidence that he has been there and met these people (Goldberg, 2011). He also collects information about then so for my project it is important that I don’t limit the evidence that I collect. 

Over to this question about just grabbing the inner space or life. This is something that go booked us by the text which says more about people’s inner lives and the photographs which are visible markers of their external relationships. 

In Rich and Poor, this chasm between the subjects’ interiority (represented in text, albeit imperfectly) and their performed exterior self (represented in the image) reflect certain universal truths about the human condition. 

The article references ‘Humans of New York’ as passing on this form of social documentary (HONY, 2016). I have written on this before. It is an example of letting the image and text speak to the situation. 

The final link here answers the question about whether the work makes any difference 

“Of course, I hope that things change and get better, but whether my work, or anybody else’s work, does that or not, I don’t know. I’m just making work and hoping that some people look at it and like it and maybe do something with it.” (Jones, 2016)

I think that is correct. My own NHS and social care work are documentary and political, but very few people have seen it despite attempts to make it ‘go viral.’ Maybe this work will have some impact.

I think I need to look at his latest work next, which I am not familiar with as a contrast to his 1977 work.

Luna Llena 

This short film from 2018 about the refugee crisis is interesting (Watch: Jim Goldberg’s Short Film, Luna Llena, 2018). 

Goldberg explains the motivations behind making this film below:

Last fall as I was reading and watching the news, I was horrified to witness how my country was portraying these individuals and families seeking asylum. With my experience from Open See working with refugees, immigrants, and trafficked individuals, I knew I had to do something. With Magnum’s support, I flew to Mexico City and embedded myself within the migrant caravan as it travelled towards the U.S. border. It was a time of great movement, emotion, and hope for a better life. It felt right to shoot film, video, and still imagery for this work, as the mixing of these mediums more accurately describes the momentum of this multi-dimensional journey. The overlaid audio further amplifies the feelings of chaos, motion, and community as people pray, parents sing lullabies to their children, and the truck engines rumble throughout.

We can see that his practice of “embedding” himself with the caravan is his method with audio, sounds and a life lived on the road. Maybe I should be more ambitious about my story of the pandemic as I am embedded in the story. 

Raised by Wolves

I have looked at this work several times but not perhaps with the lens I have now which is about how his approach can be used in my own work (Goldberg, 1992). 

spent ten years on the streets of San Francisco and LA “documenting” the city’s’ homeless teens. Raised by Wolves is the story of Goldberg’s experience with these teens. This story takes on many forms: a traveling art gallery exhibit, a book, a website, and an experience. All of these radically different modes of narrative function to tell the same story.

Goldberg goes further in Raised by Wolves by recording and transcription his subjects’ real voice, not their more contrived written voices. 

(Wichlacz, 2009)

I can see him being very open to what is being used to create his story. I need to be that to and move from my own four walls. 

What did I learn from this photographer?

  • Embed yourself with the people involved – I have started doing that in relating to people who are shielding
  • Use any media to tell the story
  • My work is political, and I have lost sight of that a little.


Abudu, K. (2020) Study #19 Rich and Poor, Jim Goldberg. At: http://davidrobertsartfoundation.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Study-19-Jim-Goldberg-by-Kojo-Abudu.pdf (Accessed  29/12/2020).

Goldberg, J. (1992) Raised by Wolves. http://jimgoldberg.com.

Goldberg, J. (2011) Goldberg quoted in an interview with Aaron Schuman in ‘Open See’ – in Conversation with Jim Goldberg”. At: seesawmagazine.com/jimgoldberginterview/jimgoldberginterview (Accessed  29/12/2020).

HONY (2016) Humans of New York. At: http://www.humansofnewyork.com

Jones, S. (2016) In my own words: Jim Goldberg, photo storyteller. At: huckmag.com/art-and-culture/photography-2/flipping-gaze-photos-jim-goldberg-documentary-storyteller/ (Accessed  29/12/2020).

O’Hagan, S. (2014) The photographer who caught the heartbreak on both sides of America’s social divide. At: theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jul/03/jim-goldberg-rich-and-poor-photography (Accessed  29/12/2020).

Watch: Jim Goldberg’s Short Film, Luna Llena (2018) Directed by Goldberg, J. At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/jim-goldberg-short-film-luna-llena-migration-usa-migrant-caravan/ (Accessed  29/12/2020).

Wichlacz, S. (2009) Jim Goldberg’s ‘Raised By Wolves’ as a Non-Fictional Multi-Media Narrative. At: https://americansuburbx.com/2009/11/theory-raised-by-wolves-as-non.html (Accessed  31/12/2020).