Tag Archives: documentary

Documentary photography, fact or fiction?

There is shock and horror on the net after World Press Photo announced a new contest with the provisional title of ‘creative documentary’. Evidently it would “not have rules limiting how images are produced.”

There has been a lot of controversy about manipulation of images. Steve McCurry was at the centre of much debate after it became clear that he had cleaned up some of his images. (See Petapixel) He responded to the criticism in an interview with Time.

“I’ve always let my pictures do the talking, but now I understand that people want me to describe the category into which I would put myself, and so I would say that today I am a visual storyteller,” (From: Time.com)

McCurry now says that he is a visual storyteller and not a photojournalist. I am not sure that gives him more freedom. There is the myth that persists into the 21st century, that photography is truthful and that no manipulation of images is allowed. In other words, we are stuck with a 19th century notion that photography is the objective representation of reality.

The manipulation of images is nothing new. In the Soviet Union it was common to remove people from photographs. There will be other examples of such pratices for propaganda or political ‘spin’. Even the selection of images considered to promote a more positive view of a person or product is, in effect, manipulation.


Photo of Nikolai Yezhov (Naval Commissar) and Stalin walking alongside the Moscow Canal. After Nikolai Yezhov fell from power, he was arrested, shot, and his image removed by the censors. [Source: Wikipedia]

I am not saying that any level of manipulation is acceptable.  Personally I limit post production to changing density, colour balance and burning and dodging that could be done with silver prints. I also remove distracting details like branches in the edge of the frame or, recently, the wing mirror of a truck in the edge of a pic.

What nobody talks about how a photographer selects, frames and decides when to press the shutter. These are the biggest decisions in the process yet they are not questioned. In the days of film there was a debate was about cropping with a fad to print the edges of the film to show that you had not cropped. The idea being that it made the image somehow more truthful. It also implies that the photographer’s view of reality is fixed when the shutter is pressed and nothing should be allowed to interfere with ‘the truth’ in the image.

Any discussion about manipulation should recognise that all documentary photography is subjective and that there is no such thing as truth.  Then we might be able to move on to more interesting debates about what motivates a photographer to choose the subject, frame it and decide when to press the shutter. Or is that all too difficult?


How photography has changed pt. 1

I have been a documentary photographer for around 35 years and have also worked as a freelance photojournalist. The difference between the two ways of working have become blurred over time and in recent years the terms have become conflated. For me documentary photography is about long form documentations of local communities. Photojournalism concerns working to a brief from an editor of a specific publication.

It is over 20 years since I completed a personal project. During that time I continued to freelance for specialist magazines shooting on 35mm colour transparency film. It was often difficult getting images to editors and one batch sent to Australia was lost for several weeks.

In early 2013 I decided it was time to switch to full fame digital for my new project “Another View“. There are many positives to using digital cameras but also some uncertainties. In photojournalism everything is now digital at both the production and consumption stage. Mobile devices allowing constant access to online content is killing printed media. Combined with the huge increase in camera phones, and ‘citizen journalism’, it is clear there are massive changes in how photographs are produced and circulated.

There are two ways to see the rise of digital photojournalism; either as a threat to the medium or as a challenge. If you really want to work for newspapers, magazines and online publications there really is no alternative to embracing digital technology.

In long form documentary there are still two camps; some stick rigidly to film and see that as proof of being a ‘real’ photographer (more of that in pt. 2.) Others use digital for the versatility of being able to produce output for different media.

I do not want to get into the arguments about which is best, it is a personal choice. What interests me more is how some documentary photographers have reacted to new opportunities for selling their work while others are using new digital media to reach a wider audience.

One of the biggest changes is the market for print sales. In some ways this confirms that photography has finally been accepted as art by becoming part of the art collectors market. Whether this is a compliment to the medium is debatable. It could be argued that photography has become more inward looking, serving its new market rather than looking out towards new audiences.

What is appalling is to see images of war and suffering being sold as ‘art’. To me that smacks of exploitation and cynicism. It also serves to erode the collective trust that subjects have in documentary photography, and photojournalism, which inevitably makes both more difficult to pursue.

It also raises another a more crucial question – who are we photographing for? Is it to feed the thirst of collectors? Is it to gain recognition from our peers? Or is it to serve the communities we photograph? And, who is the subject of interest, the photographer or the photographed?

Susan Meiselas puts this very succinctly in “Aperture 214”, Spring 2014, p.29 Aperture, New York, ISSN 003-6420.

“Photographers often start with a passionate engagement with their subjects, but an audience can easily get focussed on the narrator, at the expense of the narrative.”

If you are a committed documentary photographer who engages with the communities you photograph then you make photographs to highlight their issues and bring them to the attention of a widest possible audience. By selling to our peers and collectors we fail to do this.

It is also obvious that there has been a big rise in the publication of ‘photo books’ over recent years. From what I have seen they are usually small, or very small, prints runs aimed at collectors who are often other photographers. There is nothing wrong with that for ‘art photography’ but for any sort of committed campaigning, or opinion changing projects, then I would suggest it does little to further a cause and again shifts attention to the photographer rather than the subject.

I accept that there may be occasions when presenting in book form is helpful such as communicating with opinion formers. There are online publishing servers that make that easy now but I would suggest that a short run photobook is not an adequate output for a long form documentary project.

It seems we have two choices: to produce pictures that appeal mainly to other photographers and collectors; or to engage with digital modes to make work that can be seen by the widest possible audience. That does not mean ditching the traditional photographic exhibition but it does mean using every means possible to get work seen.

My choice is to produce both digital media and prints on the wall. I want to exhibit in conventional spaces but also use unconventional venues to take work to the audience instead of relying on them coming to exhibitions. That is not a new idea as the rash of laminated exhibitions of the 1980s did just that.

22ePanel 22/24 “The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter”, 1983. 24, A2 laminated panels of photographs and text. Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, touring exhibition.

The other way to reach new and younger audiences is to use digital modes like photofilm and online interactive galleries. If there are a large body of users viewing photographs on mobile devices every day then why not try to reach them. There is ample evidence that old and established print titles are doing just that. See http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/the-jockey/

For a good example of an interactive web site see http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/03/27/world/climate-rising-seas.html

One of the complexities of using new media is that it is very doubtful that a lone photographer has all the skills required to produce professional looking outputs. Collaboration and team work are required and the results can be spectacularly powerful and engaging. See Maisie Crow’s “The Last Clinic” http://maisiecrow.com/

In the end I am left feeling that documentary photographers have no choice but to use new ways of telling our stories. How can we engage with the communities that allow us to photograph and do our best for them in terms of seeking the widest possible audience? For me, not to try to get maximum exposure would feel like failure and a betrayal of trust.


“Documentary Expanded” – Aperture 214

If you are interested in documentary photography then you should see the Spring 2014 edition of Aperture. You can get it from villagebookstore.co.uk by mail order or in person. I have no connection other than being a satisfied customer.

On page 29 Susan Meiselas says:

“Do you know who you are making photographs for? How will the photographs serve the community? Photographers often start with a passionate engagement with their subject, but an audience can easily get focused on the narrator, at the expense of the narrative. For a photographer to be effective, they must face both of these questions.”

For me this could not have come at a better time. Now I need to answer the questions! Can you?



Adapt or die?

In “Bending the frame; photojournalism, documentary and the citizen” Fred Ritchin says that photographers have to adapt or die, i.e. we have to embrace digital technology and accept that there new ways of making and using photographs. The book is an interesting read and is available from the Aperture book shop here

He says is that the old days of photojournalism where staff photographers worked for a publication taking photographs for articles or news pages are over. With newspapers sacking their photographers and giving camera phones to reporters there is evidence that major changes are afoot!

Of course this applies mainly to commercial photojournalism but does it also impact on not-for-profit documentary photographers? If we have something to say and want to reach a wide audience then we need to use ways of showing/publishing our work that fits with modern culture. It might even be more interesting and more fun!

This infographic shows just how things have changed.

Smile for the Cell Phone! – New Photography Trends

Infographic by Visual News