What is Documentary Photography?

Here at Sham of the Perfect we talk a lot about documentary photography. It’s on our home page, our info page, we ask for it on our submission page, as well as, on facebook and instagram. However you may be left wondering what exactly is documentary photography? In short, documentary photography refers to the approach of photographing something exactly as it is without any interference or direction from the photographer.

Here’s a little secret about documentary photography: you cannot tell just by looking at a photo as to if it was taken using a documentary approach or not. While there are definitely characteristics of a photo which make it obviously not documentary, there is no one thing you can point to confirm if a photo followed the documentary guidelines. Not sure what I mean? Here are some of my photos, some of which were taken using a documentary approach and some which were not. See if you can guess which is which. It’s not as easy as you might think.









Answer: 1, 3, & 4 are documentary, 2 & 5 are not

Well? How did you do?

The only people who know for sure if a photo was taken using a documentary approach are the photographer and the subject. For a photo to be considered truly documentary there has to be no art direction. That means the photographer is not asking the family to engage in a certain activity or dress a certain way. It even goes so far as the photographer is not turning on and off lights, opening windows, or moving objects around to get them in or out of the picture.

In documentary photography it is up to the photographer to do their best with the scene on hand. That can sound really restrictive, but I actually find it to be quite the opposite and once I fully embraced a documentary approach I found it incredibly freeing. My job is to do the best I can with what I have and beyond that to let it go. I approach a scene open to watching life as it unfolds. It is only when I do so that I can fully appreciate the story in front of me. That is not to say that a documentary photographer is simply taking snapshots and calling it a day, there are hundreds of little decisions that have to happen as you click the shutter to make the photo all you can.

Some say that the heart of documentary photography happens before you take the photo whereas in other genres, the decision making happens in post. In documentary photography there is no going into photoshop after the fact and taking out a light switch cover or removing a branch that intersects with someone’s head. You get what you got, and if you didn’t catch it in the moment then you either have to accept the photo as is (imperfections and all) or send it to the trash heap and move on.

Documentary photography is not just catching an in-between moment or when a photo looks messy & unposed. The approach has to be documentary from the start. The family is doing what they would do even if you weren’t there and they are wearing what they would if you weren’t there. For this reason some people see photos that have clean houses and made up families and think it can’t be documentary conversely they see a photo where everything isn’t tidy and outfits don’t coordinate and they think it has to be documentary, but that is not the case. There is no one way for a family to look or behave. What is true for one family does not apply across the board. You can see this play out in our collective posts. Some of us have homes that are well decorated and kept pretty tidy (I am not one of those people), while others of us have more toys and general mess strewn about. Some families tend to hang out at home, while some spend a lot of time outdoors.

Documentary photography comes from a place of non-judgement. There is no such thing as a family that is too boring. There is no need to fill a session with endless fun activities to elicit big emotions and reactions. It’s the job of a documentary photographer to see the humanity of our subjects as they are. From a lowly chipped coffee mug to a baby just a few hours old in the arms of their parents, the story is there and the documentary photographer aims to show it honestly while utilizing all the tools at hand to make it the best photo they possibly can.

To be a documentary photographer you have to believe that real life is enough. It doesn’t matter if you are photographing your own family, clients, shooting street, or doing a fine art project, the documentary approach can be used across the board. Become an observer of life and share the world as you see it through documentary photography.

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Lacey is a documentary photographer whose current work focuses on family life. She is based out of Portland, Oregon.

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