What is Documentary Photography? To explore the answer perhaps it is useful to consider documentary photography’s relationship with photojournalism. In terms of story telling with pictures, it is said, that in Photojournalism that a single image can be worth a thousand words. This is a tired well-touted truism and no doubt there are times when a single image can speak vividly, but for me, it is documentary photography which is - the complete conversation.
Documentary photography distinguishes itself from photojournalism in that it, trades immediacy and succinctness (speed of breaking news happening there and then) for a longer time spent exploring, investigating and documenting an ongoing situation or process; mercury poisoning in the river systems of Sulawesi, the cloistered life of the Amish in Upper State New York, the now brutally long and devastating pandemic of AIDS in Africa, climate change and its biblical ongoing impact on the world we live in etc. These are all stories that can only be told through documentary photography in an insightful and compelling way.
Documentary photography distinguishes itself further still from photojournalism because of its ability to demonstrate the need for change. Need for change I hear you say? Yes, the need for change, this is core to what distinguishes documentary photography from photojournalism. Documentary photography is more humanistic by nature and appeals to the emotions of its audience. It has many purposes: to record, reveal, preserve, to persuade or promote, to analyze or interrogate and to express but most of all-effect change.
“We can take a picture that communicates, one where we can see the problems and the people from around the world. We show the people of Bangladesh to others so they can understand them. I have tried to bring about better communication between people. I believe that humanitarian photography is like economics. Economy is a kind of sociology, as is documentary photography.” - Sebastiao Salgado
However, while I extol Documentary Photography’s virtues, Photojournalism’s importance in the societies that we live in cannot be overstated because of it’s ability to keep people informed, therefore enabling them to make decisions that affect and effect their collective lives.
Probably a good idea is to think of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography as ‘first cousins’ both are from a similar gene pool and both share a commonality in acting as a conduit for story telling about the world we live in. Both have a role to play in story telling. There is room for both in a world that screams out to be heard, debated and understood.
“Photography is a small voice, at the best sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness…. Someone – or perhaps many – among us may be influenced to heed reason, to find a way to right that which is wrong…. The rest of us may perhaps feel a greater sense of understanding and compassion for those lives that are alien to our own…” - W. Eugene Smith.
A short exercise in sequencing/structuring your documentary images...
Below follows an example of editing documentary photographs and structuring the photographs (in this exercise just 9 images) so a narrative is present, enabling the images to be ‘read’ by your audience in a more fluid way.
Lake Providence, Louisiana. Story telling in 10 images (Images below)
I was assigned to travel to Lake Providence (for Time Magazine) Louisiana because it was declared by the bureau of statistics, as the most impoverished town in the U.S.A. This is a précis of a much larger body of documentary work but in terms of editing however, I think it is an interesting exercise to note how comprehensive communication can be with ten images. This was both an important economic story and a social issue story because of the hardship people in this town experienced (micro story) was an ongoing barometer for a larger story (macro story) concerning a flawed economic system in America at the time. Please study the pictures here and see if you can sight a narrative that has an introduction, body and conclusion. See if you can ‘see’ how the pictures when considered collectively, illustrate the challenging life of those trying to survive at a lower socio-economic level.
Note: This series of pictures is an example and the notion of Introduction, Body and Conclusion does not have to be taken literally. It is a way to help give structure to your body of work. Single pictures placed in a collective sequence with a clear narrative.Study the first image of a car in the main street of Lake Providence; this is the INTRODUCTIONimage because it establishes the environment that the images are communicating and then study the image of a mother with her children on the bed in the suburbs of Lake Providence, this is one of several BODY pictures and and consider my CONCLUSION picture of an elderly man collecting cans on the highway heading out of town.
By employing the Introduction, Body and Conclusion method during your project you will have ‘visual directions’ a visual road map of sorts (similar to a story board) to guide from the beginning to the end of your story. After choosing your images the next stage is to sequence them. Sequence? Put them in an order that suggests an ongoing logical ‘story telling narrative’. The sequence can often have multiple variations on the actual order. It is best to drop them in a picture viewing application and move the sequence around multiple times till you arrive at the sequence you consider delivers your constructive narrative in the most compelling way.