What is documentary photography?
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.’
We know that many photos are created to ‘tell’ us something: the fashion industry has been working hard to convey beauty in all shapes, sizes, colours and skin complexions – but these are staged. The make-up is applied by a professional, the clothes are chosen, the location is scouted and the lighting is often artificial. Such images have a point to get across but do they represent documentary photography?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines documentary as: ‘expressing or dealing with factual events : a documentary presentation’
The Collins dictionary states Documentary: ‘shows real events or provides information about a particular subject.’
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. However, as photographers we also want to tell stories through our images, 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 have to think: “What’s the story I want to tell here?” and then decide which images to collect that will faithfully convey the message and achieve the objectives the photographer has identified.
We often celebrate stunning images from the great photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Eugene Smith but first and foremost they were known for their documentary photography, working on photo-essays for the likes of Vu, Paris Match, Life and Picture Post magazines.
Photographers would often write their own text as well; Don McCullin’s words that were printed with his images in The Sunday Times magazine were often a punch in the gut after the photographs had already taken your breath away.
Of course, documentary photographers are great storytellers and are much in demand from the corporate sector as well. Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed for Bank of America, Harry Gruyaert photographs heavy industry, and a number of documentary photographers recently contributed to work for HSBC.
The picture magazine is a dying format, almost completely gone, but there are still great documentary photographers such as Sebastiao Salgado who works with International NGOs to draw attention to important issues. In the 1990s Salgado gave an interview about his working style: ‘Salgado, however, insists that he is not an artist but a documentary photographer, and his method of work is partial confirmation. He photographs his subjects in natural light, unposed. But unlike the typical photojournalist, and more like an artist, he is self-assigned and largely self-scheduled. Even when he is on assignment (and until recently he was under contract to Life magazine), editors are his patrons rather than his supervisors. He deplores the fact that news photographers usually have no time to integrate themselves with their subjects before they make the pictures’
The National Geographic Magazine is perhaps one of the last ambassadors of picture-led stories and there has been some great coverage of the Covid pandemic by photographers such as Danny Wilcox Frazier where the text supports a series of compelling images to tell the story of Covid in Detroit. He has said in an interview: “I think it is a form of communication. It has an impact like no other…Photography is a subjective act. An image isn’t any all-encompassing truth. Photography has this place of privilege in regard to record of events. A photograph is the closest that we have.”
A contemporary documentary photographer that I admire is, Eduardo Leal who has done some great 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’
I know many photographers who are inspired by works of fiction which isn’t surprising given that good fiction is good storytelling. A great author can describe a sense of place or situation with words so that a seemingly normal event or location can evoke a series of emotions; they somehow make the ordinary, extraordinary. Not every photographer is going to war or documenting hardship in the developing world, many documentary photographers are just trying to make the ordinary, extraordinary and tell stories that shock, surprise, motivate and inspire. As the photographer, Saul Leiter put it ‘A photographer’s gift to the viewer is sometimes beauty in the overlooked ordinary.’
I’ve also written a short blog on the topic of documentary photography which can be read here