Documentary Photography Reconsidered
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Documentary Photography Reconsidered

History, Theory and Practice

Michelle Bogre

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eBook - ePub

Documentary Photography Reconsidered

History, Theory and Practice

Michelle Bogre

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About This Book

Documentary photography is undergoing an unprecedented transformation as it adapts to the impact of digital technology, social media and new distribution methods. In this book, photographer and educator Michelle Bogre contextualizes these changes by offering a historical, theoretical and practical perspective on documentary photography from its inception to the present day. Documentary Photography Reconsidered is structured around key concepts, such as the photograph as witness, as evidence, as memory, as narrative and as a vehicle for activism and social change. Chapters include in-depth interviews with some of the world's leading contemporary practitioners, demonstrating the wide variety of different working styles, techniques and topics available to new photographers entering the field. Every key concept is illustrated with work from a range of innovative, influential and often under-represented photographers, giving a flavor of the depth and range of projects from the history of this global art form. There are also creative projects designed to spark ideas and build skills, to help you conceive, develop and produce your own meaningful documentary projects. The book is supported by a companion website, which includes in-depth video interviews with featured practitioners.

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In 2016, the world reacted with a collective gasp at the sight of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Kurdish Syrian boy, dead, lying face down as if flotsam at the surf’s edge on a Turkish beach, with his shoes still on his small feet. He died because the boat in which he and his refugee family were fleeing capsized. Natan Dvir, a documentary photographer, was heading home on a subway in New York City looking at Nancy Borowick’s new photography book, The Family Imprint, a long form documentary project chronicling her parents’ losing battles with Stage 4 cancers.
A fellow subway rider asked Dvir if she could look at the book. A few pages in, the woman, whose mother also died of cancer, was moved to tears by Borowick’s intensely intimate images. In both instances, the photograph provoked a powerful response, and that is the enduring power of documentary photography. The image is larger than the frame and it disarms us. A great documentary photograph engages us emotionally, if only for a moment. It shows us what we must see, even if we would prefer to look away.
Documentary photography preserves our collective history because it is evidence, witness, and memory. In this world of motion and sound, a still image stops time, and in turn forces us to be still as we regard it. Rooted in the human condition, documentary photography humanizes situations that would otherwise be abstract. It can challenge stereotypes, and bring humor to the human condition.
Figure 1.0Selection from The Family Imprint, Nancy Borowick, 2013 Dad called these “his and hers chairs.” He would sit beside Mom, his partner and wife of 34 years, as they got their weekly chemotherapy treatments. He had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and she was in treatment for breast cancer for the third time in her life. For him it was new and unknown, and for her it was business as usual, another appointment on her calendar.
Figure 1.0aCAR Along Religious Lines, Marcus Bleasdale, 2013 Khadidja Alhadji Adbou, a 30-year-old Mboro woman, witnessed anti-balaka forces shooting and killing her husband and three children. In the same attack, she was shot in the neck but survived.
The best documentary photograph is neither pure art nor mere fact. It is both. It evokes memories, elicits stories, and stimulates ideas. “It compels us to consider an observed moment, and in turn, to feel it, to react, to reflect or take action . .. Unlike any other medium, it says concisely and directly: Stop, damn it, and witness what I have witnessed,” notes David Friend, editor of creative development at Vanity Fair, and former director of photography at Life Magazine.2
Although critics have written its obituary many times, documentary photography is not dead. In fact, it thrives as a genre in part because digital technology (cameras, smartphones, and social media) has rendered it a more democratic medium. Documentary photography has played a key role in the emergence of mass culture. Due to their sheer numbers, photographs have shifted cultural communication from words to images, and now with digital technology, from images to ephemeral moments. Documentary photography does what other photographic genres do not do. It connects humanity, because every documentary photograph exists in two spaces, the specific moment and circumstances of the photograph, and as a metaphor for a larger theme.
Even in our post-documentary world, we can say that what distinguishes documentary photography is still what made it powerful to begin with:
Figure 1.0bConnected Tribe, Bameno Village, The Kemperi Clan. Waorani Intangible Zone Limit, El Oriente, Ecuador, Varial Cédric Houin
Even though documentary photography is not dead, as a practice, it is in transition and faces serious challenges. Although defined by content, the history of documentary photography, as with all photography, is the history of its technologies. New technology has always challenged old perspectives, expanding the possibilities of what can be photographed. The emergence of social media platforms and digital camera technology, including smartphones, has been transformative in reinventing and reinvigorating the practice. Anyone with a smartphone or mid-range digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) can become a documentary photographer and make a credible photograph. There are now more photographers making great work and sharing it globally over the many social media platforms. The documentary craft is vital and stronger than ever.
Figure 1.0cBurned Car: Algeria, Occidental Ergg, Varial Cédric Houin, 2011
Conversely, this same technology has altered industry economics, and it is much harder for documentary photographers to earn money. Work for hire agreements have eviscerated copyright. Day rates have barely budged in 10 years. Magazines seldom give guarantees. With the closing of magazines and newspapers, the old model of editorial assignments and archive resales barely exists and has not been replaced by anything stable. Simultaneously, social media platforms such as Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram allow easy distribution of projects, such as the Instagram-based Everyday Africa with its 350,000 plus followers. Created by documentary photographers Peter di Campo and Austin Merrill, Everyday Africa (also published as a book in 2017) seeks to reframe the world’s collective memory of the African continent by combating Western clichés with images from African photographers who find meaning in the flux of the everyday. Their Africa is a place far more complex than the one of conflict, disease, poverty, and game animals so commonly imaged by Western photographers.
Even as documentary photography thrives as a practice, postmodern photography and art world critics dismiss it as being boring or passé and question its value. To quote Charles Dickens’ timeless opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “It [is] the best of times, it [is] the worst of times, it [is] the age of wisdom, it [is] the age of foolishness, it [is] the epoch of belief, it [is] the epoch of incredulity”4 for documentary photography.
As this book is titled Documentary Photography Reconsidered, it is important to first define documentary photography and review its history, that is, what are we reconsidering? Then we examine the changing theories about photography and its link to truth, so we know why we are reconsidering documentary photography. Finally, we assess how documentary photography functions in the 21st century, that is, what is its future?
Figure 1.0dYazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan, Reza/Getty Images, 2015


The word “document” comes from the Latin doc, doct, docere meaning “to teach” or “instruct.” Historians suggest that the phrase “documentary film” was first used in 1926 by Scots filmmaker and critic John Grierson in a review of Robert Flaherty’s nonfiction film Moana, a story about Polynesian life.6 Grierson described Moana as a film that presented facts without fictional overtones,7 but in subsequent essays elaborated that documentary is “a creative treatment of actuality” and a “selective dramatization of facts in terms of their human consequences.”8 He also stated that documentary film should serve a sociopolitical purpose.
Even though Grierson was discussing film, his ideas about “documentary” as applied to photography would describe a certain kind of photography based on fact and reality, but with creative edges. The term gained traction in the 1930s as new photographic practices emerged situated somewhere between art and document.9 The battle between documentary as fact or documentary as art is still being waged.
Walker Evans coined the phrase “documentary style” because he wanted to distinguish his work as art, not as document, which he defined as “police photography of a scene and a murder . .. that’s a real document.”10 Dorothea Lange described her tripartite approach as a sense of place, time, and objectivity:
Roy Stryker, director of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and head of the FSA documentary photography project, wrote that the documentary photographer had a concern for actuality, not illusion, because showing life as it was being lived daily was so exciting that it needed no embellishment. The documentary photographer, he wrote, has the capacity of revealing a larger truth that informs the situation, even if it is only intermittently apparent. He called this a “. . . ‘fleeting face’—a momentary photographic revelation of the larger reality.”12
Defining documentary photography is rather like trying to define poetry: it is slippery, complex, nuanced, ever shape-shifting. There is no single accepted definition. It falls in the category of “I know it when I see it.” A Google search of the phrase “documentary photography definition” generates about six million results. Not a scientific survey, for sure, but interesting. A simple search yields com...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Documentary Photography Reconsidered
APA 6 Citation
Bogre, M. (2020). Documentary Photography Reconsidered (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Bogre, Michelle. (2020) 2020. Documentary Photography Reconsidered. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Bogre, M. (2020) Documentary Photography Reconsidered. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Bogre, Michelle. Documentary Photography Reconsidered. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.