Documentary Photography

What is documentary photography?

• An image that is real?
• An image with a purpose or message?
• An image that highlights an issue or subject?

“But, if most photographs are a kind of documentary, how can we make distinctions between them? Historians and critics have frequently drawn attention to the difficulty of defining documentary that cannot be recognised as possessing a unique style, method or body of techniques. One answer to the question is to define documentary in terms of its connection with particular kinds of social investigation.”1

All of these things are thought of when thinking about documentary photography. One of the most commonly identifiable forms of documentary photography is war photography. Images taken during and around the war, depicting and someone the world what is happening? However, do these images always show the truth? Is a staged scene of an actual event still classed as documentary?

One great example of a war image that documents a moment, so falls into the documentary photography category, yet is agued that it is staged is the ‘Rising the flag at Iowa Jima’ by Joe Rosenthal 1945. The image is iconic and has been recreated many times for advertising campaigns and such as it so recognisable and because of what it symbolises. It is the image used to represent and celebrate the American Marine Corp.Some reports say that the image was staged the day after the original flag raising, as the sergeant in charge wanted a larger flag, and a better photo opportunity. Rosenthal and many of the marines state that there were two flags and it was the raising of the second flag on the same day that Rosenthal captured.

“Photojournalism and documentary are linked by the fact they claim to have a special relationship to the real: that they give us an accurate and authentic view of the world. This claim has often been challenged on a number of grounds. Perhaps the simplest and most obvious test of authenticity is to ask whether what is in front of the lens to be photographed has been tampered with, set up or altered by the photographer”.2

The question is, is one of the most recognizable documentary photographs still a documentary photograph, if it was staged?

I believe the answer is yes. It is a representation of an actual event, in the location of the event around the same time. The concept and visual context of the image are still the same, staged or not. I feel documentary photography is photography that shows an event, issue or a moment in someone’s life. This image can be a capture of the exact moment, or a representation of the moment that still captures the feeling, atmosphere and the content reflects what happened. It is possible I feel this way as I have grown up and live in a time where Photoshop is easily available, and manipulating images to show a certain purpose is common practice and can be seen daily. I am possibly desensitised to the issue and therefore don’t see a problem with it. I can however understand why some people would feel a staged image isn’t a true documentary photograph as it is no long a capture of a moment, as isn’t showing a ‘true’ event.

Liz Wells, Photography: a critical investigation. Page 69.

2Liz Wells, Photography: a critical investigation. Page 71


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