Njut Lagom # 8

What is a documentary supposed to do?  

I grew into a documentary photographer as I spent more time working on projects and getting deeper into the matter I studied. With this project I aimed at refining the necessary skills to produce dynamic, insightful images infused with feelings and deep understanding of the documentary tradition and its methods.

I was questioning myself “what is a documentary supposed to do?”  The documentary photographer has many purposes: to record, reveal or preserve, to persuade or promote, to analyze or interrogate and to express. Indeed, producing a documentary is a complex craft and it demands several layers and a focus on the overall intention.

Walker Evans said that the term should be “documentary-style” photography, because it was really meant to be art, where true “documentary photography” would be photographs that served a function. Yet the term ‘documentary photography’ has a more specific meaning. The Life Library’s Documentary Photography (1972) defined it as “a depiction of the real world by a photographer whose intent is to communicate something of importance—to make a comment—that will be understood by the viewer”. The authors proposed three phases of its development over time: conveying visual reality (for example, the work of Eugène Atget); social reality (Jacob Riis); and psychological reality (Diane Arbus).

Karin Becker Orn, Professor at University College of Arts in Sweden, writes: “The cluster of characteristics defining the documentary style incorporates all aspects of the making and use of photographs. Although not rigid, these characteristics serve as referents for comparing photographers work within… the documentary tradition – a tradition that includes aspects of journalism, art, education, sociology and history. Primarily, documentary was thought of as having a goal beyond the production of fine art. The photographer’s goal was to bring the attention of an audience to the subject of his or her work and, in many cases, to pave the way for social change.”

Therefore documentary photography has a social function. It refers to the area of photography in which pictures are used as historical documents.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 trigger political and social change due to its ability to capture the “true” nature of an image or location. This photography style is giving information about reality, creating social consciousness and broadening the viewer’s horizon.

Most likely I would say that documentary photography is the art of documenting human patterns, livelihood in their social and cultural setting. Thus I agree with a statement of Antonin Kratochvil, a freelance photographer based in New York City, who is with the VII photo agency, where he says: “Documentary photographers reveal the infinite number of situations, actions and results over a period of time. In short, they reveal life. Life isn’t a moment. It isn’t a single situation, since one situation is followed by another and another. Which one is life?”

As documentary photographer Robert Frank wrote; “There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough – there has to be vision and the two together can make a good photograph. It is difficult to describe this thin line where matter ends and mind begins.” In simple terms, through documentary work, the photographer has a chance to show the interwoven layers of life and the aspects of daily existence. He or she has a connection to real situations and attempts to represent those situations with minimal distortion. The photographer has the capacity to capture moments of time and the various emotions of the people who come under the camera’s gaze.

In the end, like all art forms, documentary photography contains an essence of the image-makers interpretations of the situation. Basically also during my project I was following these simple terms and, as McCurry said –  “What I do and what documentary photographers do is we see the world in a particular way. We make these observations and we photograph them”.


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