What is social documentary photography?

I consider myself to be a social documentary photographer but what is social documentary photography?

What is social documentary photography?

I think social documentary photography is photography that captures an element of society or culture. It is primarily used to describe photography that highlights social issues but that constrains the definition to rule out photography that celebrates aspects of society or culture, which is also important at bringing stories to a wider audience.

Social documentary photographers are usually motivated by one of three objectives:

  • To bring a little-known aspect of society to a wider audience
  • To highlight a moral injustice within society
  • To document a tradition, way of living or other cultural activity that is likely to disappear

Famous Social Documentary Photographers

The list of social documentary photographers is extensive but the two photographers that I admire most for their dedication are Dorothea Lange and Eugene Smith.

Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange
What is social documentary photography
Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange’s most iconic photo

Dorothea Lange was part of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and employed to photograph farmers and their families as they moved from the Dust Bowl states to California to pick fruit and cotton. The conditions were harsh, work was scarce and poverty was rife. Later, during World War II Lange was employed by the War Relocation Authority to document life in the Japanese internment camps. The camps were created after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour which meant that President Roosevelt considered anyone with Japanese ancestry, even American-Japanese people, as a threat to national security and should be held in purpose built camps. Lange opposed the idea of the internment camps and used the opportunity to photograph them and highlight the indignity of imprisonment.

W. Eugene Smith was a photographer who brought the realities of rural life to the attention of America through his photo essays on the County Doctor and Country Nurse for Life Magazine. He was also assigned by Magnum to spend three weeks in Pittsburgh and submit 100 photos that could be used to celebrate the city’s centenary. Smith never did anything by halves and instead of three weeks he spent three years producing over 20,000 photographs of every aspect of the city. He ended his career by photographing the people of Minamata, a Japanese coastal where the population was being poisoned by toxic chemicals that were knowingly being released into the water from a nearby plant. Smith photographed children born with deformities and adults who were dying from mercury poison. The mercury was released into the fishing waters around the coastal city and entered the food chain through fish. Smith’s images were published by Life and other magazines which eventually led to compensation for the victims and changes to the way the plant dealt with its by-products.

Minamata fishing boat
What is Social Documentary Photography
Minamata Bay 1971. Eugene Smith

Developing a social documentary photography project

If you are thinking about starting a social documentary photography project then you might want to consider the following:

  • Subject – what is the subject and what do you want to tell your audience about the subject?
  • Story – how will you create a visual narrative that is coherent and acheives your objectives?
  • People – who are the people that you need to build a relationship with in order to tell the story?
  • Place – where does the story happen? How will you get access? Are there time constraints?
  • Ethics and Truth – There are many truths in any story, it is all a matter of perspective but acting ethically and not manipulating situations is a red line that should never be crossed. Where possible you want your subjects to be willing participants and your role is to represent the story in a respectful and accurate way.

Social documentary photography can be powerful tool when used properly and ethically. Using photography to highlight issues or celebrate culture has a long history going back to the 1800s and has been effectively suited to influence public opinion and policy.

To find out more about ‘what is social documentary photography’ you could read my book, Making Documentary Photography, which is a practical guide for photographers embarking on a documentary project. Or, join one of my workshops which run throughout the year.

Buy the book from here.
Find out more about my documentary photography workshop here.