About Photo Documentaries

July 22, 2006

Here is one set of definitions of documentary photography:

The Poetic Mode (‘reassembling fragments of the world’, a transformation of historical material into a more abstract, lyrical form, usually associated with 1920s and modernist ideas)
The Expository Mode
(‘direct address’, social issues assembled into an argumentative frame, mediated by a voice-of-God narration, associated with 1920s-1930s, and some of the rhetoric and polemic surrounding WW2)
The Observational Mode
(as technology advanced by the 1960s and cameras became smaller and lighter, able to document life in a less intrusive manner, there is less control required over lighting etc, leaving the social actors free to act and the documentaries free to record without interacting with each other)
The Participatory Mode
(the encounter between film-maker and subject is recorded, as the film-maker actively engages with the situation they are documenting, asking questions of their subjects, sharing experiences with them. Heavily reliant on the honesty of witnesses)
The Reflexive Mode (demonstrates consciousness of the process of reading documentary, and engages actively with the issues of realism and representation, acknowledging the presence of the viewer and the modality judgments they arrive at. Corresponds to critical theory of the 1980s)
The Per formative Mode (acknowledges the emotional and subjective aspects of documentary, and presents ideas as part of a context, having different meanings for different people, often autobiographical in nature) (Source mediaknowall.com)

Here is another documentary view:

Documentary photography is, by definition, the origin of all photographic movements. Photographers in the nineteenth century attempted to create documents of their reality: straightforward images of the people, places, and things that existed all around them.
Since then, Documentary photography has evolved to include a range of styles and subjects, from images of people on the streets, inside their homes, and within specific environments, to images of animals in their natural habitats, and photos of historical events. Documentary photography is a broad category that has the power to touch viewers by allowing them to find links of similarity between their lives and the lives of others, and by awakening them to realities they might not otherwise have known.
While Documentary photography lacks the precise calculation that frequently renders other art less accessible to the average eye, it does reflect the photographer’s interpretation. What a successful Documentary photograph necessarily possesses therefore, is a certain nuance that draws our interest and that captures our attention. Perhaps it is the angle of the camera, the point of view from which the shot is taken, or the lighting in which the image is shot. These are all factors that can create either an emotionally distancing picture or one with a more sympathetic tone. (Source: artandculture.com)

And a third definition, this time of an “essay”:

An essay is a short work that treats a topic from an author’s personal point of view, often taking into account subjective experiences and personal reflections upon them. Essays are usually brief works in pros, but works in verse are sometimes dubbed essays (e.g. Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711) and An Essay on Man (1733-1734). Many voluminous and famous works refer to themselves as essays (e.g. John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)).
Virtually anything may be the subject of an essay. Topics may include actual happenings, issues of human life, morality, ethics, religion and many others. An essay is, by definition, a work of non-fiction, and is often expository. (Source: wikipedia.com)

So let’s sort this out

Here are the relevant parts (slightly edited) from the above – as seen by us:

The Poetic Mode: reassembling fragments of the world, a transformation of historical material into a more abstract, lyrical form.
The Per formative Mode: acknowledges the emotional and subjective aspects of documentary, and presents ideas as part of a context, having different meanings for different people, often autobiographical in nature.
Documentary photography: a broad category that has the power to touch viewers by allowing them to find links of similarity between their lives and the lives of others, and by awakening them to realities they might not otherwise have known.
A Documentary photograph: possesses a certain nuance that draws our interest and that captures our attention.
An Essay: a topic seen from an artist’s personal point of view, often taking into account his/her personal reflections upon them.

That pretty much sums up how we approach documentary or essay projects. Note it does not mention specific subjects, objectivity or even the journalistic view of “accuracy” or “what, when, where, how, why “. Those are not key elements to us. What is missing, though, is the critical element of absolute honesty that we require.
Neither does it mention any particular technology – as it should not. In our particular case, we strive to combine all relevant technologies – often resulting in a cross breed of still photography, video or even motion film styles and music. We are still photographers first and multimedia artists second. Music is a fundamental part of our palette. We very much strive for emotional content and mood. We tend to generalize rather than drilling down. We use microcosms to symbolize a larger context.
Nor is “technical excellence” mentioned. Our view of technical excellence is simply the ability to communicate accurately the intention/goal of the project. It is not about camera formats, f-stops, depth-of-field, focus, frame rates, zone systems or any other conventional measures of “quality”. Those things are just tools – highly relevant but not a guarantee of a good photo. We do focus on compositional elements and the wonders of light to create images with the desired impact.


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