I had an idea in my own mind as to what documentary photography is, but I wondered what others thought.

Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote: ‘There are those that take photographers arranged beforehand and those who go out to discover the image and seize it.’ Whilst this sounds like it is right I’m aware that it is not exclusive to documentary photography, afterall this could apply to street photography, wildlife or sports photography, so I wanted need delve further.

Cartier-Bresson also said ‘Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigour and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it that this single picture is a whole story in itself. But this rarely happens.’ This is why the storyteller, that is within the photographer, has to think about how a collection of images can be brought together to convey a message; similar to the way a conductor brings together musicians who play different parts of a musical score, that together excite, inspire and move people. Cartier-Bresson argues that ‘photographic reportage’, or a ‘picture story’ is often the culmination of images that are ‘scattered – either in terms of space or time.’ Therefore, choosing the pictures that tell the story is ‘stage management’.

The art critic, John Berger wrote: If photographs quote from appearance and if expressiveness is achieved by what we have termed the long quotation, then the possibility suggests itself of composing with numerous quotations, of communicating not with single photographs but with groups or sequences.

What Berger appears to be saying is, if we accept that a photograph is a visual ‘quotation’ of a moment a time, then it is possible to compose a narrative from a sequence of quotations/photographs.

Photography with purpose

If the above describe documentary photography, what can it achieve?

Stuart Franklin, author of The Documentary Impulse writes ‘When photography is pursued with respect for its subject, and with artistic sensitivity, society will benefit.’ Cartier-Bresson also stated: ‘The camera is not the right instrument to provide the why’s and wherefores of things, it is, rather, designed to evoke, and in the best cases – in its own intuitive way – it also questions and gives answers at the same time. I have thus used it in an active flanerie in search of objective chance.’

Andre Breton coined the term ‘objective chance’ which is defined as having two elements: the encounter and the discovery (trouvaille); the objective chance arises from the serendipitous bringing together of these two elements. My own definition would be: being somewhere at a particular moment whilst cognisant enough to discover/see something and act accordingly.

My conclusion

For all the quotes above I am sure there are plenty of others that say something different but I realise that what is more important is for me to define what documentary photography is for me. Therefore my own conclusions are:

  • It is a collection of images that, when brought together, tell a story.
  • That each image is like a link in a chain; the strength of the chain is dependent on the content and composition of each image and its ability to sustain interest and arouse curiosity.
  • That each image has an objective that contributes to the overall objective of the documentary project.
  • That the photographer is a storyteller and communicator who uses a camera in the same way an author uses a pen.

Update – in late 2021 I have started to review the subject of documentary photography and will create an e-book of findings and thoughts in 2022.