Documentary Photography – An Introduction
What is Documentary
History of Documentary
The origins of documentary
Some of the earliest examples of documentary photos date back to the American civil war. Thanks to the invention of the camera in the early nineteenth century. This was one of the first wars in which a picture of the intimate reality of war could be brought back to the public. It forever changed the way we view and receive news.
In the mid-twentieth century, the popularity of documentary
During this time, documentary
Types of Documentary
The ultimate goal of a documentary photographer is to capture a moment accurately and truthfully in order to tell a story. It should also offer alternative ways of viewing the world.
There are many different ways a photographer can do this. Similarly, there are several different types of documentary
Photojournalism is a popular form of documentary
Photojournalism is an important part of documentary
For example, the distressing image “Fire Escape Collapse” by Stanley Forman. This captured an image of a woman and her child falling from a burning building in Boston. The fire escape collapsed just as the victims were waiting for rescue, and the photographer caught the moment. The image circulated in over a hundred newspapers and deeply shocked the public. It immediately led to the adoption of new fire escape safety legislation in Boston and the United States. In the end, it no doubt saved countless lives.
Robert Capa’s famous pictures taken during the Spanish Civil war attempted to show the futility of war. Other photographers such as British photographer Don McCullin were drawn to the victims. Including shell-shocked soldiers during the conflict of the Vietnam War.
These photojournalists wanted to use
Street photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson made this genre famous. Cartier-Bresson helped bring about the start of candid street documentary
For amateur photographers wanting to get into documentary
Unlike street and photojournalism, social documentary
Notable photographers in this field include Jacob Riis (1849-1914). Famous for his pioneering documentary photographs of New York slums. Especially his series ‘How The Other Half Lives‘ (1890). This series was fundamental in creating lasting changes to New York’s living conditions. Jacob Riis was one of the first photographers of his kind. Proving that art and documentary
Documenting social issues also requires great patience and persistence. A passion for storytelling and aiding underprivileged parts of society is a must.
Environmentalism & Conservation
This type of documentary
Photographers such as Steve McCurry often explore human’s connection to the natural world in their images.
If you are passionate about environmental issues, this genre may be perfect for you.
How to Get Started With Documentary
Photography: 4 Tips
Master Your Camera
One of the key components to taking good documentary photographs is mastering the art and science of your camera.
As a documentary photographer, you will need to be able to think fast on your feet. For example, you may have to learn how to shoot quickly, freehand in low light situations. Or you may have to deal with a fast-moving backlit subject on a bright and sunny day. Either way, you will need to be prepared and know exactly what your camera needs to capture that photograph well.
As you are trying to accurately document pictures of everyday life without interruption, you have to work with what is in front of you. You can not ask your subjects to stand in better lighting or pose in a place that makes your picture ‘perfect’. Therefore you need to know the ins and outs of your camera, like the back of your hand. This way, you can adapt to the settings without disturbing your subject.
Getting to know how your camera works in manual mode and how to change settings accurately will allow you to take much better pictures.
Find a Cause, or Story to Tell and Do Your Research
Documentary photographers must have a passion or cause that they care about in order to create meaningful work. There is little point in devoting your time and art towards something you don’t believe in yourself.
Choosing a subject or a project that you are passionate about will help you stay motivated. Especially as you face the challenges that come with being a documentary photographer. For example, if you’re passionate about LGBTQ+ rights and have a personal connection or story to tell. Look at working within that community and find out what needs highlighting.
It’s important to make sure you know everything you can about your cause before you start your documentary project. Doing your research before you get involved or begin to approach communities will help them to trust you. It will show that you care about the cause to have researched it on your own time. But also, that you are professional and knowledgable about the realities of the issues.
Some of the best-known documentary photographers were also heavily involved in activist causes. For example, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine were working against poverty and child labor before they started taking photographs. Their work later helped bring about new child labor laws to protect children.
Other early examples documented the American civil war or a cause that they felt passionate about. Each photographer was taking pictures that were meaningful to the cause they believed in or the issue they were trying to change.
Be a People Person
If you want to be a documentary photographer, one of the most basic attributes you should have is the ability to empathize with your subjects.
People will need to be able to trust you if they are going to let you into their life. Especially if they are going to let you into their life with a camera. Your subjects need to feel safe in order to let their guard down and let the scene naturally unfold. Building intimacy and trust will yield a more meaningful body of work. And produce better images.
Be Observant Take Time and Be Patient
Much of success in documentary
Documentary photographers always have to keep one eye open. As you don’t know when opportunities for great images may present themselves. For this reason, observational skills are important.
Likewise, it takes time to build trust with your subjects. This trust is a vital component of being a successful documentary photographer. Coming in hot with a camera and beginning to photograph your subject straight away is usually not the best approach.
A documentary project can span the course of weeks, months, even years. Above all, give yourself the time you need to get to know your subject. And time for them to get to know you.
Famous Documentary Photographers From History
Since the very beginning, many photographers have made a name for themselves in the industry. If you’re interested in shooting documentary
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs from the streets of Europe again changed the way we see the world. He pondered with the idea that a photograph could “fix eternity in an instant.” Taking street photos that captured a moment in time. You have probably seen many images from Cartier-Bresson without necessarily knowing it was his work.
Capa was a pioneer of the documentation of war
In the 1960s, photographer Diane Arbus ‘transformed the art of
Gordon Parks was a famous American documentary photographer. He pointed his camera at issues like poverty, civil rights, and the struggles of African Americans in the United States. Parks was also the first African American to direct major motion pictures. His photographic essays for ‘Life’ magazine paved the way for generations of black photographers and cinematographers.
Doretha Lange & Walker Evans
In the 1930s, American photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans were employed by the Farm Security Administration. Their job was to document the struggles of migrant workers and sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Lange’s photos, like the iconic Migrant Mother, helped raise awareness. They also helped spur the federal government to send aid during the great depression.
What Gear Do I Need to Be A Documentary Photographer?
This is the most obvious and important piece of equipment you will need. Ideally, a small and fast camera would be used. This is especially important when photographing people. For example, the Leica SL2-S would probably be a dream camera for most documentary photographers. It’s fast, discrete, and quiet. Meaning you won’t disrupt the scene more than you have to. However, the age-old saying “the best camera is the one you have with you” definitely stands. It doesn’t matter too much what camera you have, but how you use it.
The type of lens you need really depends on the type of documentary
Basic Maintenance Kit
Bonus Tip: Water & Snacks
In the same vein, taking care of yourself is also important. One of the best pieces of advice I received from my documentary
Regardless of the type of documentary
If you are looking to get into a meaningful form of
Remember that it is not just about taking great pictures. But about storytelling. We can’t wait to see what stories you tell.