So, what is documentary photography?
I was on my way out the door of my parents home, by the time I purchased my first camera, and the reason for purchasing my prized Nikon FE was purely for the purpose of documenting the world around me. Independent of the medium, I always felt a strong urge to be a storyteller and although years later, my first paid jobs as a photographer were as a photojournalist, even as professional photography goes, it was a financially untenable and insecure way to pay the bills, given my domestic situation.
I’ve never regretted having a family, and working from home allowed me to connect with my children in a way that never could’ve been possible, otherwise. However, it meant abandoning all thoughts of trekking around the world as a documentary photojournalist for a major newspaper, magazine or the Holy Grail, the National Geographic.
As a result, I may not have visited conflict zones abroad, but I’ve survived several insurrections and disaster zones, all from within the confines of my own home.
So, before we can answer the question posed above, we should first ask and answer another, at times, confusing question, which is “What’s the difference between Editorial, Photojournalism and Documentary photography?”.
As we all know, languages evolve over time with some words falling out of favour while new ones invade the popular lexicon, sometimes with a fury. Often, the very definition of a word will shift and take on new meaning. Such is the case with the terms Editorial, Photojournalism and Documentary, because it depends, to a great extent, on the context. Are we describing the content, the photographers approach or the usage
Roughly twenty years ago, wedding photography began to move away from the stiff series of family portraits to more of a story telling approach. Candid and minimally directed photographs crept into the wedding album and the Photojournalistic Wedding approach was born.
Similarly, the fashion industry, has long produced photographs of the latest and greatest “creations” from popular designers, not in the studio but on the gritty streets of New York City or the heather filled Scottish Highlands. The location doesn’t change the fact that the purpose wasn’t documentary, but rather for advertising.
One of the characteristics possessed by humans, is our penchant for categorizing. It gives us the false sense of security that comes from the misbelief that we can assign order to everything, thereby, deceiving us to believe that we can predict every outcome. Another characteristic, is our ability to understand that very little is ever Black & White.
For my purposes here, I’ve decided to use the following distinctions between these three terms:
Photographs captured to support the written word, be it either a magazine or newspaper article, which may be produced in or out of the studio. The subject matter can range from a feature portrait produced in the studio or on location, to a staged scenario, again, in either setting.
A single photograph or series of photographs that capture events of a relatively short duration, involving human interaction as they unfold naturally, without interference by the photographer. The location is irrelevant, as is the subject matter, but each photograph stands on its own.
A single photograph or series of photographs, in the form of a Photo Essay, which visually illustrate a subject of interest in the human condition ornatural world.
Fine Art Painters have always had the freedom to pick and choose what to include or exclude from their paintings, the hue and vibrancy of the colours they select, even the subject matter. War Artists like Alex Colville, depicted aspects of war through their paintings, and you can bet that they only reproduced what they wanted. Should they choose to, they could editorialize by portraying a battle as more or less gruesome than it really was, change perspective and alter distances between elements.
Dictionary.com defines Photography as “the process of recording images on sensitized material by the action of light, X-rays, etc, and the chemical processing of this material to produce a print, slide, or cine film.” Clearly this definition hasn’t been updated to reflect Digital Capture, but the point is that the process is instant. What one sees through the camera lens, is what comes out at the other end.
For that reason, photography has always been held to a different standard. We’ve always considered the content of a photograph to be fact, believable, trustworthy, and so it should be.
However, photographers today are occasionally criticized for tampering with the content of a photograph in post production, by using imaging software. This is not meant to excuse anyone who is deliberately attempting to misrepresent breaking news or alter the facts of an event, however, photographers have always made creative, compositional decisions by cropping in the camera, to include or exclude content.
The darkroom always allowed the photographer to emphasize or de-emphasize areas of the photograph, and Retouching Artists, in post production, have always been able to remove blemishes from a print, or darken a distracting highlight. Photoshop didn’t introduce nefarious intent into the creative process, it simply provided a new tool, that like any tool should be used with caution and respect. It’s our integrity that must remain intact.
Regardless of the style of photography or the purpose for it’s final use, the photographer will always retain a great deal of control over the content that appears within the frame. We can choose where to situate ourselves within a scene, when to be there, when to expose, and if we’re really good, we can even provide subtle direction to enhance a composition that will help to tell the story.
So, what does a Documentary Photographer really do? They…
- Ignore the onlookers
- Try Different Angles
- Pick the right time of day… or night
- Expose multiple frames
… because, in the end what matters is the content of the photograph and not how we categorize it. Does it inform, enlighten or educate
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