8 Tips for Tackling Documentary Photography 

Few photographic genres are plagued by as many misunderstandings as documentary photography. We photographers have come to classify every shot that isn’t prearranged into this genre. It’s most often confused with reportage. And meanwhile the two are easy to tell apart! Reportage is usually a short-term record of some event. While documentary work is always long-term. Its results never arrive immediately, and building up a gripping series can even take years.

Documentary work’s long-term nature is precisely what turns many photographers away from this genre. In our era that drives so many photographers to drown social networks in pics, it’s not easy to build up a project that may only net you 15–20 photos after many years. But you’ll be rewarded with the joy of a story that can be very personal and truly in-depth.

Stick to What You Know

For this genre, choose your topic very carefully. Don’t forget: it will be there with you for a really long time. Brief enthusiasm won’t be enough. If you’ll be documenting people, make sure they’re basically on the same wavelength and that you can empathize with their fates. Remember that the best topics are often the ones right around you.

The ideal situation is one where you’re close to a specific group of people, community, or minority. That gives you easier access to their world—and their trust. Sometimes you may find a topic doesn’t sit with you, you lose interest in it, or you find it doesn’t have potential. In these situations, don’t be afraid to drop that topic and seek another.

8 Tips for Tackling Documentary Photography

© Bieke Depoorter. A photo from Bieke Depoorter’s “Agata” series, focused on a young strip-club dancer. Over time, she established a very personal friendship with Agata, who even let her photograph some of her most intimate life situations.

Narrow Down the Selection

The narrower your topic’s scope, the deeper into it you can dive. You don’t have to document a whole community. Feel free to focus on a handful of people, or even just one, and grasp your topic as they see it.

And by working with fewer people, you can also establish a deeper relationship. If you’d like to document one country’s culture, try narrowing that down to a region, village, city, or neighborhood.

Have Empathy and Be Patient

We’ve already mentioned that documentaries take time. Your goal isn’t to wait for shots with perfect composition and technique. It’s to break into the topic you’re photographing. When creating his famous photoessay “Gypsies,” Josef Koudelka spent a great deal of time with his subjects. He visited them repeatedly, stayed in their homes, forged friendships with them. And this is precisely what let him create such powerful pictures.

Besides time, you’ll also need a dash of empathy. Your work should break through into the intimate life of your subjects. It should reflect not only what they do, but also their inner motives and their reasons for choosing their path in life. When you get very close to someone, that should also key you in on when it’s a good time to photograph them and when it’s better to leave your camera in your pocket.

8 Tips for Tackling Documentary Photography

© Josef Koudelka. From his “Gypsies” series.

Go Beyond the Superficial

Don’t skim the surface. Be curious and communicate with the people you’re photographing. (Books related to your topic will come in handy too.) What you discover doesn’t have to show through in your pictures explicitly. Work with hints and let your viewer reveal your intent on their own.

8 Tips for Tackling Documentary Photography

© Jindřich Štreit. This photo is from Jindřich Štreit’s lifelong project documenting the village of Sovinec.

Get Close Enough

Forget about long lenses. “Snagging” the right moments from a distance won’t cut it. The famous war photographer Robert Capa once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” A documentary photographer is often no longer just an impartial observer; they’re a listener and a friend. Become part of the story.

Documentarians often use a 35mm lens—or sometimes even wider. Many photographers work solely with this one fixed length. That way, not only are you close enough, your viewer feels they’ve been drawn into the events.

8 Tips for Tackling Documentary Photography

© Jaroslav Kučera.

Content First

In this genre, neither lens quality nor consistent sharpness play all that strong of a role. A picture’s events are much more important. What you want it to tell. Leafing through the Magnum archives, you’ll find a number of blurry, noisy, overexposed or otherwise technically flawed pictures that defy all the classic rules. And yet they’re masterworks.

8 Tips for Tackling Documentary Photography

© Sebastião Salgado. From the series “Kuwait: A Desert on Fire.”

Make It a Series!

Don’t try to express everything in just one photo. Think about your project as a series right from the start. Think of the beginning where you’re immersing viewers in the plot, how the photos after that link into each other visually and in their content, and of the whole series’ logical conclusion.

8 Tips for Tackling Documentary Photography

© W. Eugene Smith. The cult classic “Country Doctor” documents the daily life of a doctor who provided 24-hour medical care to the inhabitants of a small town in the Rockies. When arranging the images in his series, Smith took inspiration from the composition of theater plays.

Get Inspired

Documentary photography has a long and rich tradition worldwide, and you don’t have to go far for inspiration. One ideal source is the rich online archive of the Magnum agency.

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Last updated 21. July 2020

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Author: Ondrej Cechvala

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