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Documentary Photography














The Documentary Approach


'...I work alone. Humans are incredible, because when you come alone, they will receive you, they accept you, they protect you, they give you all things that you need, and they teach you all things you must know. When you come with two persons or three persons, you have a group in front of them. They don't discuss with the new persons what is important to them...'  Sebastiao Salgado. Excerpts from an interview with Sebastiao Salgado by Ken Lassiter, Photographer's Forum

A documentary photographer has a perspective, an agenda, an ideology - he or she takes sides.

'What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures. Nothing more than this. I don't want people to look at them and appreciate the light and the palate of tones. I want them to look inside and see what the pictures represent, and the kind of people I photograph.' Sebastiao Salgado. Excerpts from an interview with Sebastiao Salgado by Ken Lassiter, Photographer's Forum 

Unlike the street photographer, the documentary photographer relies on a close relationship with his or her subjects,

'The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.'  Sebastiao Salgado - 'The Lyric Documentarian' published in An Uncertain Grace (Aperture), 1990.

'I very much like to work on long-term projects...There is time for the photographer and the people in front of the camera to understand each other. There is time to go to a place and understand what is happening there. ...When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him.' Sebastiao Salgado. Excerpts from an interview with Sebastiao Salgado by Ken Lassiter, Photographer's Forum

Another difference is that the documentary photography aims to tell a story through a collection of images whereas the street photographer aims to 'capture the moment'.

'It is a great honor for me to be compared to Henri Cartier-Bresson...But I believe there is a very big difference in the way we put ourselves inside the stories we photograph. He always strove for the decisive moment as being the most important. I always work for a group of pictures, to tell a story. If you ask which picture in a story I like most, it is impossible for me to tell you this. I don't work for an individual picture. If I must select one individual picture for a client, it is very difficult for me.' Sebastiao Salgado.  Excerpts from an interview with Sebastiao Salgado by Ken Lassiter, Photographer's Forum


Documentary Photography (Source: Wikipedia)

The term documentary applied to photography antedates the mode or genre itself. Photographs meant to accurately describe otherwise unknown, hidden, forbidden, or difficult-to-access places or circumstances date to the earliest daguerreotype and calotype 'surveys' of the ruins of the Near East, Egypt, and the American wilderness areas. Nineteenth century archaeologist John Beasly Greene, for example, traveled to Nubia in the early 1850s to photograph the major ruins of the region; One early documentation project was the French Missions Heliographiques organized by the official Commission des Monuments historiques to develop an archive of France's rapidly-disappearing architectural and human heritage; the project included such photographic luminaries as Edouard Denis Baldus, and United States Geological and Geographical Survey, the The Children of the Slums of 1892, used those photographs, but increasingly he also employed visual materials from a wide variety of sources, including police 'mug shots' and photojournalistic images.

Riis's documentary photography was passionately devoted to changing the inhumane conditions under which the poor lived in the rapidly-expanding urban-industrial centers. His work succeeded in embedding photography in urban reform movements, notably the National Child Labor Commission and published in sociological journals like The Survey, are generally credited with strongly influencing the development of child-labor laws in New York and the United States more generally.

In the 1930s, the Fred Lonidier, whose 'Health and Safety Game' of 1976 became a model of post-documentary, and Martha Rosler, whose 'The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems' of 1974-75 served as a milestone in the critique of classical humanistic documentary as the work of privileged elites imposing their visions and values on the dis-empowered.

An important documentary photography of the present is Manuel Rivera-Ortiz, who as an independent photographer documents the lives of people in developing countries. Affected by his own experience of growing up poor in rural Puerto Rico, Rivera-Ortiz refers to his work as a celebration of life, in poverty. Rivera-Ortiz has photographed Cuba, comparing the conditions he found to the Puerto Rico of his youth, or India, showing the dignity of the Dalit ('Untouchable') caste, or the Aymara living in the arid altiplano of Bolivia. He has also exhibited work from Kenya to Turkey to Thailand.












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