What is Business Documentary Photography?

Business Documentary Photography

Business Documentary photography is a subset of Social Documentary photography – a genre of photography that captures visual stories about aspects of society and the environment – or to put it another way, people and place at a moment in time.

This extends to business documentary photography where an organisation documents its life in exactly the same way.

When I was asked many years ago to produce a film documentary about the cooperative movement, I quickly learned that several universities had extensive video and picture archives dating back to the birth of the movement, including the breadth of work and the impact it had on society.

Cooperative Movement business documentary photography
Cooperative Society film and photography unit – Business Documentary Photographers.

Cadbury’s and the John Lewis Partnership have their own archives that have documented the evolution of their businesses, the way they worked and the impact they have had throughout their history.

Some archives are less helpful. When I was researching a silent whisky distillery (closed-down), I visited the Diageo archives in Scotland but found mainly marketing materials and a few photos of senior leaders. There was nothing that helped to visualise how the distillery operated, the people who worked there or its role in the community.

Ways of working at Cadbury. Writing on chocolate box. Business Documentary Photography.
Ways of working documented by Cadbury

Visual storytelling

Today our lives are inextricably linked to the world of work. The world of work continues to change, particularly now that many more people spend a certain amount of their working week sitting at their desk at home, automation, AI, and jobs that haven’t even been thought of yet.

When we’re not working we are consuming the efforts of businesses and when we’re not consuming we might be entertained by an event that is sponsored by business.

I think businesses are fascinating. What they produce, how they come up with ideas, how they find customers, how they play a role in society, how they respond to changing technology and new ways of working. Behind each of these points is a story, stories about people, and it is these stories that should be documented and celebrated.

Today’s story is tomorrow’s history lesson.

The Sustainability Story

One of the most significant shifts for every business is the transition towards genuine sustainability and circular operating models. What organisations are doing today will be of interest in 5-10 years from now as we look back at the stories we’ve captured to reflect on what worked and didn’t work?

The better the story, the more information we have to make better decisions in the future. That is why sustainability communications are so important to record.

I read recently that a survey of UK businesses found 1 in 5 leaders didn’t know if they were making progress with sustainability initiatives or not. That demonstrates to me that we aren’t capturing enough stories and sharing them as part of the sustainability communications activity.

Why business documentary photography?

Photography and visual stories are the most universal language and quickest stories to understand. We read text at around four words per second, meaning 100 words takes about 25 seconds to read. Whereas, we can read a sequence of six images in 1 second, according to studies from MIT. How many six image stories could we tell about organisations today that could inform, motivate and inspire?

These visual stories are not just a collection of moments in time but they are also data points from which we build a bigger picture and often make decisions or assumptions.

Jacob Riis documenting poverty in the New York slums of 1880s

Text based data can often be impenetrable but visual data is much more accessible. In the late 1800s a photographer and writer used photography to collect indisputable data about the sub-standard living conditions of the poorest in New York. These conditions had been written about previously but the visual data was so compelling and graphic that it mobilised those in power to take action.

We have all heard about the melting polar ice caps but it’s the image of a stranded polar bear that now embodies the story.

If you want to discuss how your business or organisations could be using business documentary photography then get in touch and let’s chat.