Why take photographs? What makes a photograph so very different from a painting, a sculpture, or a poem?

Why Documentary Photography?

There are several answers to this question. One that is primarily important is this: the photograph documents reality instantly, using light and time to reproduce a moment as it is perceived. This makes photography one of the essential documentation methods of people, events, and feelings, both historically and today.

“V-J Day, Times Square,” 1945, a.k.a. “The Kiss” – Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945“V-J Day, Times Square,” 1945, a.k.a. “The Kiss” – Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945

Looking back, documentary photography has made waves of impact as a method of truth-telling under challenging times, a way of exposing disturbing scenes to raise awareness of things like poverty and famine, to ultimately reshape the public’s opinion on government policies that were often the direct cause.

Vulture Stalking a Child – Kevin Carter, 1993Vulture Stalking a Child – Kevin Carter, 1993

Documentary photography proves that pictures can change the world. For example, photos revealing the death and destruction caused by U.S. presence in Vietnam resulted in America’s withdrawal from the war. The key to this is not in the telling but the showing. Photographers were able to capture the emotion and trauma of suffering humanity and inspire viewers to create change. The communication of emotion visually is valuable and vital, even in singular glimpses.

“And babies” – Ronald L. Haeberle, 1968

“And babies” – Ronald L. Haeberle, 1968

Granted, documentary photography does not always depict loss and despair. Realism, context, and timing are vital roles that documentary photographers must always consider. Does the photograph truly represent its subject? How is this photograph a symbol of a larger issue, feelings, or events? Why is this moment significant?

For example, this photograph of Tiananmen Square by Jeff Widener in 1989, in which one man stands in protest in front of government tanks, revived a belief in courage and represents the notion that a small figure can make a change. By this logic, the documentary photographer could be compared to the man in the photograph. He, too, has created an extraordinary impact with one act – in this case, the iconic photograph.

“Tank Man” – Jeff Widener, 1989
A Chinese protestor blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Changan Blvd. June 5 1989, in front of the Beijing Hotel. The man, calling for an end to the violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way.

“Tank Man” – Jeff Widener, 1989

Styles of documentary photography vary, as well. For example, wedding or event photography is documentation, as photographers take pictures candidly to capture the moments that make the event memorable and provide a thorough and beautiful overview through a series representing the event as a whole.

Likewise, sports can be documented through action shots that capture the movement of the game. Food photography as well can be documentation, especially when capturing pictures of the preparation, during which the food is revealed via its most important aspect: its creator, the chef.

In modern times, documentary photography is still essential. Photojournalism as a profession has become increasingly difficult to maintain due to the rise in iPhone photography and layoffs sparked by changing demands for media. Nonetheless, it is as crucial as ever to document life in real-time and share authentic and moving stories with the world.

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As a photographer, some people believe that it is your responsibility to document the places, events, and people you come across in life that you feel are important, beautiful, or special. It’s a compelling belief and may just be real. History happens, and with it, memories, but photographers alone can capture it in frames.

Also, Read about Breadcrumbs and their importance.

What do you think about documentary photography and photojournalism? Do you shoot in a documentary style? Share your images below in the comments.


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