Documentary photography is a genre aimed at capturing reality through images. In this medium, photographers tell stories and objectively document events, people, and places. Join us while we explore the importance of documentary photography, its origin, key figures from the 19th and 20th centuries, and the challenges and opportunities in the digital world.

Documentary photography plays a crucial societal role, offering insight into different realities and situations otherwise inaccessible. Through these images, we witness historical events, discover diverse cultures, and become aware of social and environmental issues. It also holds artistic, aesthetic, and cultural value, reflecting the photographer’s vision and interpretation of reality.

Origin of Documentary Photography

This genre originated in the 19th century to portray situations as realistically as possible. The snapshot aims for plausibility, maintaining a clear distinction between reality and the captured image. The photographer’s role is fundamental in achieving the goals of documentary photography, pressing a button to obtain the so-called “pure record.”

One of the earliest documentary photographers was John Thomson, a British geographer and photographer who documented the people, landscapes, and objects of oriental cultures during his travels to the Far East. His work in London’s alleys, portraying the reality of marginalised social classes, solidified his reputation as a classic example of social documentary, laying the foundation for photojournalism.

Documentary photography - Thomson

Another influential documentary photographer was Jacob Riis, who used photography to document poverty in New York City in the 1890s, particularly through photographs of indigent children sleeping in the city’s alleys.

Key Figures of the 19th and 20th Centuries

Throughout the 20th century, documentary photography diversified, covering different themes, styles, and approaches. Some standout figures include:

Lewis Hine was an American photographer who focused on portraying the living and working conditions of immigrants, children, and workers in the industry. His work significantly impacted social reform and child protection. He also captured iconic images of the construction of the Empire State Building and the aftermath of World War I. He was one of the pioneers of documentary photography and influenced generations of photographers who followed him

Dorothea Lange was an American photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration, documenting and alleviating rural poverty during the Great Depression. Her most famous photograph is “Migrant Mother,” depicting a peasant mother with her children.

Documentary Photography - Dorothea Lange

Robert Capa was a Hungarian photographer specialising in covering wars and conflicts. He co-founded Magnum Photos, the first cooperative of independent photographers. His best-known photograph is “Death of a Militiaman,” capturing the moment a Republican soldier is shot during the Spanish Civil War.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer considered the father of photojournalism. His work is characterised by elegance, spontaneity, and geometric composition. He co-founded Magnum Photos and documented culture, politics, and everyday life worldwide.

Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian photographer dedicated to portraying the living conditions of disadvantaged populations and the effects of globalisation and development on the environment. His work has significant aesthetic, ethical, and humanistic value.

Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital World

The digital world has radically changed the production, distribution, and consumption of documentary photography. While facilitating access to technology, information, and communication, it has also presented challenges like image saturation, digital manipulation, loss of credibility, copyright protection, and economic sustainability.

In this context, documentary photography must adapt and innovate, seeking new ways to narrate, interact with the audience, and create social impact. Current trends include the use of digital platforms, transmedia project development, incorporation of multimedia elements, involvement of protagonists, and collaboration with other social actors.

Documentary photography, with its long and rich history, has witnessed and participated in the world’s social and political changes. Its importance lies in its ability to capture and convey reality, generate awareness and empathy, and contribute to social change. In the digital world, documentary photography faces new challenges and opportunities, demanding innovation and evolution while retaining its essence and commitment.

Just in case you are interested in exploring the realm of documentary photography, you can find some reliable and amazing resources below.

Social Documentary Network is a platform for documentary photographers of all levels to showcase their work and share stories about the world.

Moving Walls is an annual documentary photography exhibition produced by the Open Society Foundations that aligns with their mission to advance human rights and social justice.

The Aftermath Project is a grant-making organisation that supports photographers who document the aftermath of conflict and violence and the challenges of rebuilding and healing.

Momenta: A company that offers workshops, mentorships, and scholarships for documentary photographers who want to create social change through their work.

The W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund is a foundation that awards grants and fellowships to photographers who follow the tradition of W. Eugene Smith, a legendary photojournalist and humanist.

Aperture is a non-profit organisation that publishes a quarterly magazine, books, and online content about documentary photography and contemporary art.

Documentary photography stands as a powerful testament to our shared human experience, capturing the essence of reality through the lenses of dedicated visionaries. From its origins in the 19th century to the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age, this genre has evolved, adapted, and continued to shape our understanding of the world.

As we reflect on the significant contributions of key figures such as John Thomson, Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Sebastião Salgado, we are reminded of the profound impact that visual storytelling can have on societal awareness and empathy.

In the digital era, where technology provides both accessibility and challenges, the call to action for our audience is clear. Embrace the evolving landscape of documentary photography, support the innovative approaches and emerging talents, and actively engage with the narratives that unfold through this powerful medium.

Let us champion the role of documentary photography in fostering understanding, encouraging social change, and preserving the authenticity of our collective history. By doing so, we contribute to the ongoing dialogue that shapes our world and inspires positive transformation. Together, as participants in this visual journey, let’s amplify the voices that strive to capture, communicate, and elevate the realities that define our shared existence.