Documentary Photography: What it is, famous examples, and why it’s so important

Documentary photography is more than just creating a great image. It’s about telling a story, getting a point across, educating and informing, inspiring and motivating.

This can, of course, be achieved with a single image but more complex stories require a series of images: a beginning, a middle and an end. Susan Sontag wrote: A photograph could also be described as a quotation, making a book of photographs like a book of quotations.

Documentary Photography Contact Sheet
Contact Sheet from The Americans 1955-6; Robert Frank.

Documentary Photography vs Street Photography

This, I think, is where documentary photography differs from street photography. Street photography is often focused on a single image that is appealing because of the light and shade, pop of colour, or unusual juxtaposition of the elements. If it has documentary value, it is secondary to its primary attribute, which is often purely aesthetic or humorous.

  • A street photographer: Hunts. Sees. Captures. 
  • A documentary photographer: Listens. Observes. Captures. 

What I mean by that is I have never embarked on a documentary project without first speaking to and understanding the people and places I’m going to photograph. Whereas, I do no such preparation if I’m walking the streets of London or New York with my camera in hand searching for a shape, mosaic, serendipitous moment, or action.

A documentary photographer is a storyteller, and like all storytellers they start by sketching out the story they want to tell. 

A writer doesn’t have the whole booked planned before they start but they will have a strong sense of the overall narrative, they will only know the full story once they start writing. 

Documentary photography is very similar, it usually starts with a desire to tell a story, which could be as broad as depicting rural village life, or as detailed as how the local baker makes such great cakes. 

It all starts with an idea for a story; so why call it documentary photography?

Defining Documentary Photography

The Tate’s website describes documentary photography as:

 “a style of photography that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events, and is often used in reportage.

Therefore, the act of photographing a real event, person, place or object is to ‘document’ that particular moment in time.

The photographer, Dorothea Lange described documentary photography as an ‘approach’, which she defined as:

First, hands off. Whatever I photograph, I do not molest or tamper with or arrange. Second, a sense of place. Whatever I photograph I try to picture as part of its surroundings, as having roots. Third, a sense of time. Whatever I photograph I try to show as having its position in the past or the present.’ 

Walker Evans, a contemporary of Dorothea Lange, also thought of documentary photography as an approach, which he described as expressing emotion, or lyricism. 

Other definitions claim that documentary photography can only really happen over a long period of time with a particular subject, whilst others believe that it has a particular role to play in society and if doesn’t fulfil that role it cannot be considered to be documentary.

Personally, I align with the view that documentary photography is an approach to visual storytelling that is faithful to real events as they happen, irrespective of duration. 

Telling stories through imagery

As photographers, we want the stories we tell through our images to be engaging and interesting, which is why we think about composition, exposure, framing, lighting and all of the other elements that come together to create images that hold the attention.

In the same way that a film director plans the detail of each scene, the same is true of the documentary photographer, only they have to think quickly because events unfold in real-time. They must decide which images to collect that will faithfully convey the story and achieve any objectives the photographer has identified.

It is important to understand that not every documentary photography project requires an objective. In the same way artists will say that they paint for themselves, there is nothing wrong with simply being a curious photographer. 

The American photographer, Walker Evans spent several days over a number of years photographing people in the New York subway. He didn’t have an outlet for his work, it wasn’t commissioned, he was curious and wanted to document the life of New Yorkers on the subway. 

We can agree that documentary photography is an approach to the physical act of making pictures of real events and people to tell an engaging story.

What makes a good Documentary Photographer?

Documentary photographers are communicators and they bring stories to the attention of a wider audience through their work.

To be a documentary photographer means to be curious, have empathy, emotional intelligence and the skills to craft a story.

The desire to create and share stories is as old as humanity. Cave paintings in the island of Sulawesi have been dated as old as 44,000 years, representing the earliest attempt at visual storytelling. The scene, which depicts animals and human figures, is probably of a hunt or an event, that at least one person wanted to visually convey to a wider group. 

Who knows, it may have been an early form of PowerPoint for training young members of the tribe? It may have been a central theme for a story and the drawing was a visual aid? What we do know is that the desire to use imagery to tell stories has been with us for a very long time.

Why we choose to document

The motivations for documentary photographers are the same for documentary film-makers, which are usually: 

  • to raise awareness of an issue that the photographer or film-maker feels would be of interest to an audience
  • to share an experience that an audience might not otherwise be able to appreciate, or
  • or to introduce the audience to a new way of seeing something that is already familiar to them

In the book Imagining Reality, Mark Cousins and Kevin Macdonald describe the transition for documentary filmmakers after the second world war:

“…Filmmakers began to reject the restrictive notion that documentary was merely a medium for mass communication and ‘social betterment’Instead, they looked at documentary as a means to express strong personal opinions and points of view.”

We see this today in photography through the work of, among others, Sebastio Salgado, Paula Bronstein, Eduardo Leal, Letizia Battaglia and Jim Mortram who all focus on specific issues that they feel very passionate about and want to bring to the attention of a wider audience.

Every documentary project starts with an idea, which is based on the photographer’s own perspective. 

Michelle Borge writes: The documentary photographer yields a power of social construction over who or that which is represented and how it is represented.

Meaning that it is possible for two photographers to document life in a particular street, with one focussing on the isolation and loneliness of residents, while the other focusses on community spirit. In this way, each photographer is the editor of a total reality and chooses to amplify that part of the reality which fits with their original idea.

Photographer, Susan Meiselas has said: Documentary photography is principally based on capturing not constructing a world.

Famous Documentary Photographers

Documentary photography has existed since the birth of cameras but perhaps the best example of an organised effort is the Farm Security Administration who employed photographers including Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to document the lives of sharecroppers in 1930s America. 

Often described as the photographs that illustrate John Steinbeck’s book The Grapes of Wrath, the images captured by these photographers conveyed the harsh realities for working-class families during the Depression.

Dust Jacket Grapes of Wrath
Grapes of Wrath dustjacket

Dorothea Lange wrote: “the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.”

Her most famous image has endured and been much copied over the years. It was taken in 1936 when she visited a Pea-Pickers Camp in California and came across Florence Owens Thompson who was staying at the camp and working in the fields. Lange took several portraits of the woman with her children, which was first titled ‘Pea Picker Family’ but was later changed to ‘Migrant Mother’.

Documentary Photography. Migrant Mother. Documentary Photographer Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother, 1936 – Dorothea Lange

There are far too many documentary photographers of note to list them all but a few that I personally admire would include:

  • Tish Murtha who was a British photographer active from the late 1970s who was documenting life primarily in the North East of England but also in London. Her work focused on youth unemployment and working-class families in a way that highlighted the inequalities in society but also celebrated the collective spirit of working-class communities.
  • Eduardo Leal has told some powerful stories, including about plastic pollution. Eduardo has said that documentary photographers need the right skills but crucially ‘engagement with the story, if you don’t like the story you are documenting it will be pretty hard to have a strong work in the end. But most important to show respect for the story and its subjects’.
  • Letizia Battaglia was an Italian photographer who used photography to campaign against the Mafia-led corruption in Sicily and has crafted some compelling images of Sicilian society and the impact of organised crime.

In the heyday of image-led print media the likes of Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson were commissioned or could sell their stories to a host of magazines including: Life, Time, Vu, Paris Match and Picture Post.

Today, the picture magazine is a dying format, which means documentary photographers are increasingly using digital platforms and book publications to showcase their work.

The importance of Documentary Photography

There is no one single objective for documentary photography. It would be an oversimplification to state that documentary photography is about conveying the ‘truth’ because the ‘truth’ varies with perspective. 

The photographer Chris Killip recalled when he photographed the residents of a partially burned-out building that he wanted to convey their resilience and optimism. However, the local council felt he had captured the bleakness of local authority housing and issued a statement insisting that his photographs should not be displayed in any council-funded venues. They clearly saw a different truth.

Photography can highlight issues and bring them to the fore. It can change opinion, influence policy and sometimes bring justice.

Minamata fishing boat
Minamata Bay 1971. Eugene Smith

Minamata was Eugene Smith’s last documentary project in the early 1970s. He visited the area in Japan where a chemical plant had been dumping hazardous by-products into the Minamata Bay significantly increasing mercury levels which entered the food chain through the main diet of fish. 

The town’s people were severely ill and dying. Smith was determined to tell their stories through his images, even though he was physically assaulted and intimidated during his stay by those with interests in the chemical plant. 

The pictures were published in Time magazine and Smith produced a book, both of which brought the story to light, raised questions about industrial pollution and ultimately saw the people of Minamata compensated for their misery.

Today’s documentary photographers are bringing stories of social injustice, environmental impact, poverty, conflict, and human struggle to our attention. The challenge for photographers today is achieving cut-through in a world that has endless channels of communication but limited opportunity to stand out against the ‘selfie’.

Documentary photography is increasingly being used by businesses and organisations to document their work. There is a lot of important work being done by businesses – skills that are disappearing, break-throughs that are being made, innovation and new concepts, stories of change and growth over time are all being documented using the same skills, techniques and photographers who are also shining a light on social issues large and small.

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