What is a Documentary Photography?
A Documentary Photography is a form of photography that is used to portray and chronicle significant and historical events. Unlike the professional photography, Documentary Photography can be amateur, artistic and or academic pursuit which is covered in photojournalism. The result of this particular type of photography is realistic, true to life and objective.
Documentary Photography is usually a candid photography of a specific subject, most often pictures of people.
Documentary Photography refers to the area of photography in which pictures are used as historical documents. Rather than serving as a source of art or aesthetic pleasure, documentary photography is often used to incite political and social change due to its ability to capture the “true” nature of an image or location. In simple terms, this school of photography uses pictures as documented evidence of a particular situation.
Lewis Hine and James Van DerZee are two of the pioneers of documentary photography. While documentary and artistic photography are considered to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, Paul Strand is one of the few photographers famous for slyly blending these two opposing schools through his avant-garde style.
Oftentimes, pictures taken in the vein of documentary photography tend to be shocking, grotesque, vivid and intense to prove a point and evoke a viewer’s emotions. Some of the most common examples of documentary photographs are featured in modern newspapers and magazines.
Through these images, the public learns truth information about cultural, political and environmental situations. Given this fact, it is no surprise that documentary photography exploded into the American consciousness during the Great Depression of 1930s when photographers were documenting the pervasive poverty.
Types Of Documentary Photography
The genre of Documentary Photography evolved at the end of the 19th century. Nowadays this term has become contrast in the contemporary professional photographic language. It’s a genre, which reveals occurrences and events, usually of the social character. It unites the aims of photographic art and photojournalism.
There are the following kinds of photo documentary:
• Street photography
• Typology and
Others, though these differentiations are rather relative and don’t have obvious borders.
• As a rule, documentary photography is a series of shots on the concrete topic represented in the chronological order.
• It’s also typical for this genre to be amplified with the text, describing the subject, place and time. The text can be either minimal or detailed and usually it is the work of the photographer himself.
Aims Of Documentary Photography
: Documentary photography is now beyond simple narrative fixing of the burning issues of the day, it becomes more and more subjective. The author’s view and style are highly appreciated.
By the way, it was American chronicle photographers, who managed to show that the art can play its role in solution of social problems. In the first half of the 20th century Lewis W. Hine exposed the immorality, horrors of child labor and homelessness. Jacob Riis published the book “How The Other Half Lives”, in which he revealed the life of New-York slums. Their photos became the material evidence of social injustice and the cause of the reforms the society needed.
To show the injustice of the world and to act so that the situation would be changed. That was the aim of the photojournalists, who created an international cooperative agency “Magnum” after the World War II, in 1947 in Paris. Its founders were such acknowledged masters of documentary photography as Robert Capa, David Seymour, George Rodger and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Now it has expanded with four editorial offices in New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, and a network of fifteen sub-agents.
And it is clear because social reportage is one of the most needed genres in photo documentation. In addition, documentary photography is a unique historical and artistic evidence. Such photos are notable for their plot culmination and serious issue and leave no one being indifferent.
“The concept of documentary photography is the shot, which aim is to describe the reality and, perhaps, to transfer some important message or story. However, the European interpretation shows documentary photography as subjective. A documentary photographer is closer to an independent author or even a poet. The main task consists in finding the way of making your ideas visible.
Relying on the words of the war photographer Robert Capa, he says: “If the shot is not good enough it means:
1) a photographer wasn’t too close to the action;
2) a photographer hasn’t read about the event enough;
3) a photographer hasn’t had a close emotional contact with the object of his photography.”
• “Come closer to the stranger.
• Enter the new situation.
• Discover who you are.
It is about how to find the balance between the surrounding world and your place in it. How to tell about the reality of the world through your personal truth.”
Documentary Facts As A Propaganda
“Objective documentary photography doesn’t exist. A photographer, who insists on it, is naive. Here is always a political, commercial or personal interest. The border between documentary photography and propaganda is very thin. We should learn how to reveal the strength of the propaganda photography visual language.
Shooting in different places, take one of the sides: positive or negative. And photograph the objects according to your attitude, using the instruments of propaganda.”
However, documentary photography should perform the main function - information. It should be direct and truthful to become the unique historical and artistic evidence, creating the archive of time.
More about Documentary Photography
Documentary photography is a type of professional photojournalism. But even an amateur or a film student can make a documentary photograph. Documentary photography is more about capturing the truth in the social scenario around us. It is also referred to as Candid photography as the moments captured are true and real.
Documentary photography, to a certain extent, captures the real essence of the photographers mind. They depict a certain perspective of the mind of the photographer. These photographs are usually for exhibition in an art gallery or other public forum. Sometimes an organization or company will commission documentary photography of its activities, but the pictures will only be for its private archives. The challenge for a documentary photographer is to make pictures of sensitive scenes and moments without changing them by the presence of a camera.
People should not pose for the camera or else it won’t be real! The resulting pictures - the subjects facing the camera and seen from “top to toe” are a vivid historical documentary photography archive, and have established the posed “straight up” as a valid style of documentary picture-making.
Eugene Smith from the U.S and Henry Carier Bresson from Europe are the two most famous documentary photographers. Others, being August Sander, Eugene Atget, Jacob Riis and the like.
In India Raghubir Singh was one of the finest documentary photographers of the twentieth century.
Documentary photography has risen in recent times because of the rapid growth of the media. The rapid growth of documentary photography represents strong forces at work with a strong creative impulse to bring out the truth to the world. A documentary photograph says so much about the period it was taken in, the background, the prevailing conditions during that time. One has to analyze the picture carefully to gain a complete understanding of all this. These photographs serve as a record of social and political situations with the aim of conveying information.
Tips for a better Photograph:
1 Tell a story
Use photography to tell a story. First you’ll need to choose a subject, which can be the hardest part of the process. Before you head off to far-reaching countries, try experimenting with story and ideas closer to home. Whether it’s the drudgery of life in an office or the joy of working your own allotment, you’ll find there are plenty of interesting stories nearby.
2 Do some research
Even if the story is close to your heart or home, you should still do some research. Plan what you want to say. Ask yourself if you want to tell the story in just one shot or whether the subject might benefit from a series of multiple pictures. A photo essay, for example, could help you to reveal more about your subject.
3 Choose your style
Think about the way you intend to shoot and how you want the final image to look and feel. Do you want the finished pictures to be in black and white or colour? Do you only want to use natural light to enhance the mood, or will hard flash light add to your story? A bit of planning will make your photos more coherent. Take a look at the best documentary category entries of Photographer of the Year 2010 for inspiration…
4 Be prepared
Once you’ve decided on an approach and style you’ll need to ensure you have the right gear to capture your shot. You probably won’t need to take your entire kit bag with you, so just select the tools you need. Be sure you’ve got the right focal lengths covered, and ask yourself if you might need a tripod. Are your camera batteries fully charged? Have you got spare batteries for your flashgun and plenty of memory cards? Don’t let a lack of preparation ruin a shoot.
5 Get permission
It’s a good idea to seek permission, especially if you’re photographing people going about their business. Explain what you’re doing and you’ll often get a hearty collaboration from your subject, but sneak around suspiciously and you’ll be given a wide berth or asked to leave. If you’re working on a long-term project you’ll need to build a healthy rapport to get results.
6 Don’t rush
The best documentary pictures are often the result of a long-term project, so try not to rush in an attempt to capture all the shots in one go. If you do end up with limited time in one location, try to maximise the time you have.
7 Get back-up
One of the most important tasks for a digital photographer is to ensure if all of his/her images are safe. As soon as you get back from your day’s shooting, download your images and make back-up copies on an external hard-drive or DVD. It’s a good idea to keep your back-ups in a different location to your main computer.
8 Process your images
Once your images are safe you can start to process them. If you shoot in RAW you can make most of your tweaks to colour, tone and contrast at the processing stage using smart software such as Adobe Camera Raw. For a documentary project it’s unlikely that you’ll want to manipulate your images heavily. Just make a few adjustments or try converting to black and white for added impact.
9 Think about presentation
once you finish your project, think about portraying it off. If you’ve made a series of images, perhaps you could have them printed and framed to be hung in an exhibition, or perhaps they would be better suited to being viewed in a book format. There are plenty of online printing services that can make great books of your pictures for a reasonable price.
10 Learn from the best photographers
Magnum Photos is a photo agency that was founded by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour just after the Second World War. It’s since become one of the world’s most important photographic institutions. Check out the ‘In Motion’ section for slideshows of the members’ work, along with fascinating commentaries.
Preethi.S, September, 2011.