Documentary Photography - Documenting the World

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Documentary photography is a photographic effort whose emphasis is to document and tell a story of the world around us. In short, it chronicles significant changes in the life and existence of a particular subject or subjects.

The principal subjects involved with this style are usually people, but in recent times environmental issues and the struggles faced by a variety of wildlife have come into the scene on their own.

Such an instance is the plight of the polar bears and their struggle for survival which they face due mainly in part to the diminishing polar ice caps and the effects of global warming.

Photographers who specialize in this type of photography will usually spend copious amounts of time following a subject and making daily or weekly photo recordings of the subject and the world around it.

Sometimes they may visit sites where special events have occurred in the past such as Woodstock. Through a compilation of old images and new images which should also include people, the photographer tries to give us an idea of what it was like at the time of the event and how things are now; documenting changes, both to the physical space and to the people involved as well as how society and trends have changed over the years.

This style is often confused with historical documentary photography because it closely mimics the subjects and theme, but it's list of subjects is broader.

Changes to landscapes offer good opportunities to document how changes in climate, population growth, technological and scientific advances have helped shape it. National Geographic Magazine is well known for taking this approach and providing exceptional images from old an new, past and present.

However, the subjects for documentary photography do not always have to be landscapes, nature or personalities, they can also include changes to society as a whole, sections of society or individuals. Towns, cities, neighborhoods are good too.

Sports themes also allow for the opportunity of pursuing this particular type of photography. From the first time an Afro American player was actually allowed to play in the major leagues to the standards of today. For example the change in uniform styles, techniques and players of the NBA. The changes in equipment, coverage and the players themselves from the inception of the NFL to today.

Changes in a country from a societal point of view or from a political standpoint. Wars the before and the after and its results and changes continue to be popular coverage areas for documentaries.

The health field can also provide ample opportunities to conduct this style such as the discovery of the HIV virus and the recent scientific advances to combat it as well as the personalities which have been affected by the disease and the changes in their lives.

The changes can be documented over long spans of time or they can be of short time frames such as the usual preparations that go into effect in the demolition of a landmark or historical building.

The recovery efforts after a natural disaster or a man made one can be recorded over a period of a few months to a few years and many photographers will spend the time necessary to capture a full history.

A well known chapter in the annals of naturalist history is the story of Dian Fossey, an American born naturalist and zoologist who spent nearly 18 years of her life in the jungles of Rwanda in her efforts to protect the endangered mountain gorilla population from poachers.

Ms.Fossey often documented her efforts through photography and received the attention of the world and many publications. Through her efforts and photography, the mountain gorilla was able to starve off extinction.

Archaeological and salvage works are also two areas in which this genre fits well. Often salvage operations can take several days, weeks or months and archaeological work, with its very slow progress and attention to even the most minute of details can take even longer, often years.

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Other classical subjects can be social struggles such as the conflict from Apartheid in South Africa or an energy crisis brought on by a natural disaster of a conflict. Issues and stigmas faced by certain members of a society provide an unlimited number of opportunities such as the consequence of leaving a village in Africa or the plight and vicissitudes faced by young women in some parts of the world where arranged marriages are common or disobeying an elder or parent carries dire consequences.

Other less dramatic coverage areas would be such things as a royal wedding, the election of a new Pope, even a rescue attempt of trapped miners. Fashion trends are still popular subjects and its documentation is often requested by the fashion industry.

These images clearly can be included in the realm of photojournalism but they document a much longer experience or slow change and most of the photographers within this genre are self motivated. The images are rarely one or two, documentary photography by its mere nature, involves many images which together forms the basis from which this technique gets its name.

Many of their images end up in news media outlets and other publications, some even are displayed in art galleries and many of these photographers often ink book deals. This work takes persistence, patience and self sacrifice but its efforts are quite often well rewarded.

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© 2011 Luis E Gonzalez

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Comments 6 comments

justom profile image

justom 5 years ago from 41042

Luis none of this stuff makes sense to me. Is this all just some new way to try to say something that's already been said. Photography has always been documentary, that seems self explanitory. I guess I'm just old school and feel all this is just words. Let's just get back to the basics, I think anyone that picks up a camera now thinks they're a photographer and digital has a lot to do with that. Peace!! Tom


wheelinallover profile image

wheelinallover 5 years ago from Central United States

Luis I will try to answer justom's comment. Justom what Luis has been doing is showing people who have a true interest in photography that there are ways to make a living with it even as an amateur. I personally have read many of his hubs and they have taught me many things I wasn't aware of. Because of his hubs I now have words to explain what I have done and why. I was able to use his advice to take more legal photographs for my hubs. His work also let me know there is a market for the amateur pictures I have taken. I am smart enough to know, and you will find many people who agree with me that I am not ever going to be a "photographer". My work is amateur and that is all it will ever be. I personally don't have the time or money to be anything else. Anyone who helps me be a better amateur is doing the world a favor.


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

Photography documents an instance or more precisely, a moment in the life of a subject. In other words the present. Documentary photography's main purpose is to follow as you may, a subject over a period of time and to show how that subject changes over time. Many photographic styles are very similar in scope and techniques and genres overlap considerably. You are right, many people pick up a good digital camera and think that they are a photographer, but not all. Those so seriously enjoy the art for more than just weekend shots can learn new techniques and nuances which will lead them to enjoy photography even more. My hope in writing articles such as this one, is that perhaps someone may find a style or technique that appeals to them and get to enjoy it. For example; when I first started back in 1979, I had never heard of macro photography. After reading an article and seeing some samples in a magazine, I became hooked and have been doing a lot of macro shots since them. My intention is to make others aware of the many photographic genres that are currently practiced today. Nothing more nothing less. The step from amateur to professional is as simple as knowing.

Like Wheelinallover said, there are many amateurs who have their work published and do make money from it, the difference between them and a true professional is that the professional makes a living from his shots.

Thanks for your observations


justom profile image

justom 5 years ago from 41042

Hi Luis, I'm sure I must sound like I'm being a pain but I'm really not. I started taking photos in 1969 and after a stint in the military went to and graduated from The Ohio Institute of Photography. I don't say that for any reason other than to say maybe I'm just old school to some extent and get worn out here on HP by folks who have no idea what makes a quality shot but will still choose to try to argue with me about it. I know this doesn't include you because you clearly know what you're talking about but it seems like the world we live in now is full of new words that to me are just a lot of jibberish for the same stuff I've been doing for years. Thanks for being understanding, I'm not sure what I say always comes across correctly. Peace!! Tom


LuisEGonzalez profile image

LuisEGonzalez 5 years ago from Miami, Florida Author

justom: You are again correct, there are a lot of people who think that the equipment makes the photographer and do not understand that it's more of a technique which can only be developed by practice and understanding. So yes, we can only try to assist and enlighten those who are just starting.

Again your comments are refreshing and do help me see things from a different perspective.


anndavis25 profile image

anndavis25 4 years ago from Clearwater, Fl.

I stumbled across your hub, and taking a look because I used to get the National Geographic. Loved it!.

Right now, I'm laughing out loud at justom's comment. He don't mess around with words.

If I could live my life over...I would be a photo journalist. Yes, they make a mark on society. They record history....

Justom, suck it up..this is a great hub. I just proved it.

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