Documentary photography is a wide-ranging form of fine art photography that can probably be defined in many different ways. It is closely related to street photography and photojournalism but differs from each one in that it is focused on shedding light on a greater social issue.
The goal of the documentary photographer is to create an accurate representation of the subject. There are no poses, and the images are not glamorized in any way.
Documentary photos capture the reality of the situation, and the best ones connect
the viewer in a visceral way to the issue at hand.
Unlike photojournalism, which is limited to a single news story or event, documentary images are used collectively to illuminate a deeper issue. One photo alone seldom suffices, and it is more common for a set or collection of photographs to tell the complete story and to speak accurately to the problem. Here is an article on what is photojournalism and how is it different from documentary photography.
To simplify the matter even further, most photographers are familiar with documentary wedding photography. This is photojournalism in its most real sense, the recording of an event. Candid images and capturing the emotionalism of the day are the goals of the wedding photographer. Read this article on how to master the nuanced art of Wedding Photography. But images for a documentary go further. They capture not just a day's events, but an underlying issue. So if you are using a documentary wedding photography image series to shed light on the high cost of wedding ceremonies, on family dynamics issues, or on LGBTQ marriage and equality issues, then you are beginning to understand the power of a documentary series.
Many people are familiar with film documentaries, or the latest Netflix photography documentary. This movie genre has become very popular and has been a tool for change around the world. It is just the latest advancement of the documentary image, the evolution of the artform as technology changes and improves. Photography documentaries are still around, and still just as powerful.
Early Beginnings of the Artform
Documentaries have always been geared as a powerful tool towards social change. Since the camera was invented, photographers have used it to capture images of the world around them, and that includes the problems they see in it. Wars, hunger, poverty, and social injustices are just a few topics that have been recorded in photographs. It has proven itself a powerful medium for change by simply connecting uninformed masses in a deep and meaningful way to the issue.
Some of the earliest photography documentaries occurred during the American Civil War. Likewise, the settling of the American West was also the subject of many powerful images. The post-war years and the turn of the 20th century were marked by rapid industrialization and urbanization in the United States. Pictures of wild places untouched by man and the vast open spaces of the West connected deeply with people who lived in the big cities along the coasts. Documentary images were vital in building support in Washington, D.C. for conservation efforts and the formation of Yellowstone National Park and the U.S. national park system in general.
The Industrial Revolution created many less glamorous issues for photographers to document, as well. Many mills, factories, and sweatshops were using child workers, taking advantage of gaps in labor laws that had not kept pace with industry and business. Photographers used their lenses to focus national attention on these social injustices. As public sentiment solidified against these practices, laws changed, and working conditions improved.
Like the Civil War before it, World War I catalyzed documentary photographers to share the carnage of war with the rest of the world. From the front-line trenches of Europe, photographers captured the real cost of the war.
The Great Depression that resulted from the stock market crash of 1929 blighted much of the western world. Photographers used their power to document the poor and suffering, and the hungry and despondent. To this day, some of the most famous documentary pictures came from the Depression Era. The Farm Security Administration was formed in 1935 and hired many now well-known photographers to help them take persuasive images of the endemic problems associated with the extended economic recession. This was not only done to maintain a historical record but also used successfully to boost public support of the government's social programs.
Images of the Holocaust and atrocities throughout Europe during World War II remain powerful reminders of one of the world's darkest hours.
Besides wars and major economic events, documentaries have also been used as a powerful force for conservation. Ansel Adams' vast collection of landscape works are often cited as a conservation documentary. Legions of photographers have helped document decaying ruins of past civilizations and various location's histories.
Notable Documentary Photographers
The Early Trailblazers
John Beasley Greene (1832-1856)
Much of documentary photography is about recording history and events for future generations or just for scientific study. Greene was a French Egyptologist who traveled extensively to photographs ruins of the ancient world. Additionally, he and others of his day worked with French historical societies to document the rapidly disappearing heritage sites around France.
Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882)
O'Sullivan is most known for his work during the American Civil War and for documenting the wild spaces of the American West. During the war, records are fuzzy about exactly how O'Sullivan served. In all likelihood, he was a civilian who documented maps, records, and plans. He documented other events along the way.
He continued to document the war through photography. He traveled with other photographers and artists and documented important events like the Battle at Gettysburg and General Lee's surrender at the Appomattox Court House. His work was often shockingly brutal, showing dead bodies, gore, and the general horrors of war.
He later became an official photographer for the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. He pioneered a new type of landscape photography that was not influenced by classical painting techniques. Instead, he focused on science to use the art of photography to capture accurate records.
O'Sullivan also helped with early surveys for the Panama Canal and was one of the first people to document the ancient ruins and pueblos of the southwest United States.
Jacob Riis (1849-1914)
Riis became a police reporter for the New York Tribune and working in one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden parts of the city. His reporting was known as melodramatic, and he was accused of exaggeration, so he looked for better ways to show the upper classes the conditions in which the poor lived. Riis turned to photography to document the blight that he saw daily. He began by hiring professional photographers to work with and eventually learned the artform himself.
Throughout his career, he documented the terrible living conditions of the slums of New York. His most famous book, How the Other Half Lives, raised awareness of poverty and led to many reforms that limited slum lords. Riis' photography showed situations that many people couldn't have even imagined existed at the time.
Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Hine was a former teacher when he became a staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. He was already familiar with the power of photography as a tool for social change. He had led classes and taken many photos of immigrants passing through Ellis Island. At his new job, Hine took thousands of photographs of the working and living conditions of children.
At the time, many sweatshops, mills, factories, and street trades took advantage of loopholes in labor laws that allowed minors to work. It was a dangerous beat for Hine, with foremen and security guards working hard to keep the child labor under wraps. He often had to work undercover. His goal was to create an empathetic response in the viewer, to have them connect to the subject in a way that spurred them to action.
Hine covered many other projects during his lifetime, including shooting Red Cross workers during the Great War in Europe and the construction of the Empire State Building in New York. He documented poverty during the Great Depression and living conditions in the American South.
Steve McCurry (b. 1950)
McCurry is probably the best-known photographer working for National Geographic. He is known for his full-color portraiture, especially his 1984 image titled Afghan Girl that appeared on the magazine's cover. He has had his work published in every major magazine around the world and has received countless awards.
Fazal Sheikh (b. 1965)
Sheikh uses his photography to record the displaced and marginalized communities of the world. He has worked in India, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Middle East. From the latter, he produced The Erasure Trilogy, a collection of exhibitions and books that explore the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict from the perspective of lost memories.
Pieter Hugo (b. 1976)
Hugo's photography has always been based on the marginalized. Born and working in post-Apartheid South Africa, his first projects involved portraits of those "whose appearance makes us look aside." The albinos, the blind, and the elderly were topics he wanted to confront head-on.
He has documented social problems and marginalized societies throughout the African continent. He has worked in Rwanda extensively, and in 2014 he was commissioned for a portrait project that was eventually displayed in The Hague. Hugo regularly works with the New Yorker and New York Time's Magazine, as well as Zeit and Le Monde. He also produces fashion photography features.
How to Create a Documentary
Shooting your own documentary isn't very difficult, but there is some planning required. The first step, after you've picked your subject, is to decide exactly what the public needs to see to raise awareness. What change are you hoping for, and who needs to hear about it to make the change happen? Sometimes this will be clear in the beginning, and sometimes you'll need to start shooting the project before the path becomes clear.
In many ways, the history of documentaries has been linked closely to the camera technology available at the time. Early plate cameras required a large amount of setup and either long-exposure images or the use of large flashes. When small portable cameras like Leicas came along, journalists and documentarians were able to use them in low-light situations discreetly. Printing techniques allowed images to not only be reproduced for newspapers but also transmitted from printer to printer. All of these things affected the artists by giving them more tools and more options. To learn more about how lighting can work for your photographs, click here.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about the equipment you use. It needs to capture the images in a format that is appropriate for your intended medium. If you want to sell the photos to magazines or have them printed, you'll want something with an excellent lens and a good-sized sensor. But if you are looking to publish work solely on the web or social media, even your smartphone will do.
Of course, you might choose option C, all of the above. Use multiple cameras and lenses to capture different aspects of the project. You might start with one setup and realize that it's not working out like you'd hoped, so you switch up all of your gear choices. The decision is entirely yours, as long as your final choice helps you communicate the goals of your collection.
As always, no matter what equipment you shoot with, use the RAW file format. Photo editors will always want the highest quality image available from a shoot.
Think through your project and be ready for a selection of shooting environments. Things that are always handy to have are both a wide-angle and a telephoto lens, a small and inconspicuous camera, and something very good at shooting in low-light.
Role of Subject
No matter what subject matter you're shooting, it's important to keep the role of the subject clear in your mind. The subject isn't there to pose or to be placed in the most beautiful light. The subject is present in your photos for the purpose of furthering your mission, of helping your photos communicate your message. Images are always candid and the presence of the photographer is downplayed as much as possible. The results may be unflattering in some ways, and that's okay.
It's also worth noting that while having your subject's face is vital in many other areas of photography, it's not necessarily relevant in a documentary image. Think of the iconic "Tank Man" image from China's Tiananmen Square. This power image not only shows a small figure at a distance, but it's also grainy. Yet this photo is one of the most recognized documentary photos in existence, and it shows no faces or other characteristics that we usually associate with beautiful photography.
Even though you are not posing or working with your subject in a portraiture sense, it's still important to communicate freely with them. Kindness and open communication are extremely helpful in connecting with your subject and getting them to trust you. The more uncomfortable or surprised they are, then the more your presence will be felt in the photographs. Privacy issues should likewise not be ignored. All identifiable individuals should sign proper model releases, even if you aren't explicitly using them for commercial gain unless your images are for editorial use only. Here is an article on Photography Contracts and a few critical things that should be included in them.
10 Tips to Create Compelling Documentary Images
Think Creatively and Critically When Choosing Equipment
Since the subject matter and even the types of locations you shoot in documentaries vary so widely, it's impossible to speculate what the best equipment might be. But one thing is for certain. You don't want to be stuck with the wrong equipment. Two considerations must be prioritized.
First, you want equipment that is appropriate for the time and place you will be shooting. In harsh environments, you may want a sturdy adventure camera, while on the street, you might opt for a compact camera. Secondly, you want to make sure that your camera of choice produces acceptable photos. That adventure camera's super-wide-angle lens distorts photographs and has a tiny sensor. Major magazines are probably not going to print those photos, but they can be used on the web.
Tell a Story
Photographers working on documentary projects don't come into it casually. The issues are nearly always something near and dear to them already. At the very least, they are something that they have researched and know very well.
If you don't understand the issues at play that you are trying to document, you're going to have a lot of trouble capturing images that speak to people. The problems that make the best documentary photos are deep and systemic, and they are seldom simple and black and white. Understanding them means knowing the history, the present state of affairs, and where you'd like things to go and how to get them there. This is really the difference between photojournalism and documentary images.
Documentaries cover a wide breadth of work and require this deep understanding. Photojournalism, on the other hand, is about showing up and capturing an event as it happens.
Remember, It's Not Portraits or Studio Work
Forget everything you know about portraiture or studio photography. Documentaries are made up of candid images, and sometimes not flattering ones. Your job is to document what is there and not to affect the situation in any way. Beyond making sure that people are comfortable with you around and are okay with your shooting, the photographer is a fly on the wall.
Backup Your Work
Documentary projects often span over weeks or months, and that probably means thousands of photos. Make sure to back up your project somehow. Invest in a rugged backup drive and duplicate everything. If you have a decent internet connection, you might want to save it to the cloud, too. Don't rely on just the card in your camera, or even just your laptop's hard disk. Save your work often to make sure that if a loss does occur, it is minimized.
Make Sure You Have Enough Time
Telling a complete and compelling story through documentary images requires a huge investment in time and energy. Unless you are a full-time freelancer, it can be hard for many working photographers to commit the resources needed to document an issue properly.
If you're just getting started, consider starting with a project close to home that you can document over time. This will save you on travel costs, and it is more likely to be a project that you are familiar with and passionate about.
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The Best Stories are Important to You
When you set out to create a documentary, you might wonder what topics and issues to highlight. The best topics are things that already pique your curiosity. If you're already interested in a subject and want to know more, the rest will come much easier.
People Skills are Key
As with pretty much every other style of photography, documentary photographers require exceptional people skills. Even though you aren't posing subjects or setting up scenes for the most beautiful image, you still want to make your presence known and get everyone comfortable with you around.
Make a Plan
It helps to keep a journal, or some form of written record, to track your thoughts and goals as you progress. Write down a mission statement and an abstract to help clarify exactly what it is you want to do with your project. Having this on paper will not only help you focus your work, but will also help you communicate it to others.
Use a Shot List
In addition to some notes about your goals, you'll also want to put together a detailed plan of action. What locations do you think you should visit? Once you have an idea of the locations, you can start to focus your attention on specific subjects, like the people, places, and things that best tell your story.
Once you have a general plan, you can start storyboarding ideas and putting together shot lists. These may be detailed, or they may be more general, depending on how you work and your subject matter. If you are visiting your subject at home or work, for example, you might notice small details in the background that tell more about the story in unexpected ways. These details are impossible to plan for, but you must keep your eyes open for opportunities when in the field.
Choose Your Best Photos for Editing
Documentary images have a very limited lifetime, so you need to deliver them quickly. You want to be a master of your post-processing workflow, whatever it might be. Everyone works a little differently, but after the event isn’t the time or place to figure your workflow out for the first time.
In a big event, you're likely shooting a thousand or more images. Your client won’t want that many. Be brutal and edit your photos quickly. Go with your gut. If it’s not technically perfect, get rid of it. Once you’ve narrowed your image set down, get to work editing, and get the shots to your client. Deliver the documentary images while the event is still fresh in their minds. It's more convenient to share your photographs via a digital client gallery platform.
Not only is digital delivery faster, but it also lets your client proof, comment, and ask for modifications in particular photographs. Pixpa's online gallery platform lets you do all of this, but unlike some platforms, you can send/receive instant messages from multiple password-protected users at once.
Don't Be Afraid to Push Boundaries
In its role as a vessel for social change, documentaries have always been something that stretches on societal norms. Images that have the most effect are usually shocking in some way. They show us something new, something we hadn't thought about before. So don't be afraid to push a little. Try something new and provocative.
The rules that govern documentaries, if there are any at all, are becoming increasingly blurred. With the many photography techniques for digital manipulation, the distinctions between fact and fiction have become increasingly blurry. Questions have arisen in the art community for decades now as to what constitutes true documentary photos and what does not.
It's also worth noting that many of today's most notable documentaries occur on film. Look online for the latest Netflix photography documentary. They are great sources for inspiration and cover a wide range of topics, from biopics of famous photographers to the most pertinent social issues.
This form of photography certainly isn't for everyone. But for those with a passion and a story to tell, it's a powerful and meaningful art form.