Documentary Photography

Dispel the myths

/ #Documentary #photographers #visual documents  /3 min read

I recently curated a photography show about a UK gospel choir who this year celebrate 13 years in the music industry. Using the images taken over the years, we were able to build a visual history of the life of the group from 1994 to 2007.

Although most of the images were taken, not as ‘documentary’, but as a combination of promotional, live event and portrait photographs, along with my co-curator, we found enough in the images that could tell the story of the group over the time.

When people think about documentary photography, people think of well-known people such as Cartier-Bresson, Riis, Hine and Lange. Black and white images most readily come to mind and some subject matter that is perhaps hard, sad or related to human suffering. While these states exist within the genre, it does not mean that you as a documentary photographer have to follow the same themes or style as those mentioned above.

What/Who is a Documentary Photographer

The documentary photographer in it’s purest form is the person who documents a subject with the aid of a photograph. Visually the story is told within multiple or a single picture, be it in colour or black and white, be it a situation that stems from suffering or one from joy.

Many photo-bloggers are documentary photographers. They are busy capturing the world around them and placing these visual documents online for the rest of us to view. Although many may not set out with a specific theme in mind, they categorise and sort their images into related groupings, and as such, considered as a group, it is possible to see these images as a theme. Just because the photographer did not set out to produce a ‘documentary’ photograph, doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t one. The next time you set out to do a new piece of documentary work ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this picture or series of pictures tell a story?
  • Can the viewer get a grip on the situation being photographed from my images?
  • If you look at these images ten years from now, will they explain something about the time, place or mood in which they were taken?

I believe if they can answer those questions, then you’ve done the job. If you can do the planning, research and development of a story told in pictures taken over an extended period, be that a day, week, month or years, rather than just taking instant photographs of something that comes across your path, you can develop your career as a documentary photographer.