Updated: Jan 15, 2021
Documentary photography can be described as a genre of photographs that aims to capture its subjects as faithfully and accurately as possible, reflecting the reality. Its main purpose is to convey information to its recipients.
This genre captures subjects such as war, landscapes, architecture, plants, animals, people and many more. It documents life.
The origins of documentary photography date back to the 19th century. An example of the first documentary photography can be photographic records of the Crimean War by Roger Fenton, who documents it, and is considered the pioneer of war reporting.
At the end of the 19th century documentary photography expanded by capturing ordinary, everyday people . Jacob Riis, a New York journalist, used speed light to successfully document poor people; immigrants and their children in the dark, impoverished parts of the city. Thanks to his photos, published later in a book called How The Other Half Lives, new laws were passed regarding child labour and inequality in education. Therefore it is believed, that Riis proved that documentary photography can translate into real, tangible changes in society.
Other examples of the impact of documentary photography through the content it transmits on changes in social consciousness are photographs by Lewis Hine, who exposed the atrocities of child labour in Appalachia, or Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, American photographers who worked for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s documenting the hardships of migrants and tenants during the Great Depression.
Their photographs, such as the Migrant Mother (above), raised public awareness and convinced the government to intervene.
There are many similar examples, and one could multiply them endlessly. Not all of them are spectacular, but they share an honest and true narrative. This, in my opinion, makes documentary photography timeless. Its simplicity and universality can be read by everyone, regardless of the country of the origin.
Fig 1 Riis, J. (1890) Children Sleeping in Mulberry Street. [Online] Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Riischildren.jpg (Accessed: 30 December 2020).
Fig 2 Lange, D. (1936) Migrant Mother. [Online] Available at: https://www.history.com/news/migrant-mother-new-deal-great-depression (Accessed: 30 December 2020).
Cohn, A. Gonzalez, A. (no date) Wstep do Fotografii Dokumentalnej. Available at: https://www.adobe.com/pl/creativecloud/photography/discover/documentary-photography.html (Accessed: 30 December 2020).
The Art Story (no date) Documentary Photography. History and Concepts. Available at: https://www.theartstory.org/movement/documentary-photography/history-and-concepts/ (Accessed: 30 December 2020).