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Reflection on the meaning of documentary photography

What was your idea of documentary photography before you worked on Part One? How would you now sum it up?

Before part 1, my idea of documentary photography was derived from the everyday use of the word ‘document’. Something that records information and facts of a situation, hopefully in an objective manner to enable understanding of that situation. Though any document is necessarily limited in its scope – it is impossible for it to deal with everything. As a photograph is restricted by its frame. I glean a similar understanding through the viewing of television ‘documentaries’ – objectivity and reliability of information is vital in the making programmes. Similarly, I viewed documentary photography as photographs taken in a straight style, as objectively as possible to provide a likeness to a real-life subject or event.

My reading of Martha Rosler (see here) has led to some change in my thinking. A photograph can and often does end up being used for a different purpose than the photographer originally intended. This makes the use of definitions problematic. Also other photographers use what is a documentary style of photography not to necessary present objective information but to make us consider what we are looking at on a different, more abstract level (Sarah Pickering and Paul Seawright).  I now think that the documentary categorisation can be best applied to the photographer’s intention for the work and not necessarily to the  photograph itself, as used in a different context, it can take on a different meaning.

What are the differences between documentary, reportage, photojournalism and art photography?

Documentary is a broad area concerned with the factual recording of information or events. Jon Tonk’s work Empire (separate post here) is a good example of documentary photography, where he shows us life on islands that are outposts of the former British Empire.

Reportage is closely linked to documentary but is specifically concerned with the telling of a story of an event through photographs. It is not concerned with events staged specifically for the photographs, but with ‘real life’ events. Recently the term has been adopted to describe a story telling version of wedding photography (vs a traditional organised and posed approach).

Photojournalism relates to pictures taken to support the textual story of news, for example presented in newspapers or magazines. This will often not be presented as a series of images, but as the single image that the editor considers best fits the story.

Art photography is not necessarily concerned with a factual representation (although images can be based in life), but with the presentation of a concept or and idea that helps us to think beyond the surface representation – for example, the qualities of the medium itself or what the image might signify. Wells explains how a photographer as an artist is viewed:

… the artist is viewed as transcending ‘mere recording’ of events, as offering a unique perspective on or insight into people, places, objects, relationships, circumstances.

Context has an important role – simply through placement in the institutions of a galleries, museums or art journals, a photograph can be perceived as art.


Wells L (2015 ) Photography: a critical introduction. Fifth edition (on Kindle), Routledge, London and New York.

Rosler M (1981). In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography). Available from: http://web.pdx.edu/~vcc/Seminar/Rosler_photo.pdf [accessed 27.9.15]

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