Exercise – What is documentary photography?

Our course manual instructs us to listen to a commentary by Miranda Gavin from Hotshoe talking about documentary photography. Gavin says we are to look carefully at the various nomenclatures uses for documentary photography, e.g. photojournalism, reportage and documentary and see if they are still relevant.

Digital platforms are making documentary work more accessible to people and also more women are studying photography which means there will be more women doing documentary work. As a result of this the female gaze is going to change the way certain topics are viewed. Gavin is quite correct to state that we are renegotiating those terms. We need to ask who the documentary work is for, where does it fit in and what is the outlet for this kind of work. Women approach topics from a more social/emotional point of view than men.

Yet while documentary work may seem to cross over into art or creative we do need to bear in mind the underlying premises of documentary photography: that it’s aim is to make the viewer an eyewitness and to inform or educate. As David Bate (2009: 53) states there are two modes within documentary photography and they exist in binary opposition, i.e. the objective approach which is a neutral camera view, the frontality of that view renders the photograph “cold”. Opposite to this is the subjective approach where the photographer captures the instantaneity of the moment. The subjective mode is “hot”. Comparing the work of August Sander to that of Richard Billingham one can clearly see the difference between the two modes.

Another important point to take into consideration is that documentary work involves a certain level of storytelling. Ideally a documentary project can show processes (be they social or otherwise), the actors within the work (the events) and the conditions in which these take place (the state). All three these criteria are essential for documentary. There are slight differences to these criteria when we look at some of the sub-genres of documentary such as journalism and reportage.

Gavin brings up the example of Monique Stauder’s work Latitude Zero in which Stauder acknowledged that the fine art community regards her work as documentary, while the documentary community regards her work as fine art. Listening to Stauder’s TedTalk and seeing her work run in a slideshow behind her, it seems quite clear to me that there are many stories within this project. An excerpt from the book is available on Stauder’s website and scrolling through it, one can definitely see that there is a journalistic bent to the work. Personally I cannot even begin to conceptualise her work as being fine art. To me fine art is work that has been created primarily for aesthetic purposes, with beauty being the foremost, while Stauder’s work’s is informative and educational, but is also aesthetically pleasing.

With the upsurge of images on social media and the variety of work that is being made these days, it is probably wise to remain flexible on the definition of what documentary photography is as it will take on different nuances as new technologies emerge.


Bate, D, (2009). Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Berg.

Monique Stauder – Latitude Zero (2011) [user-generated content online] Creat. Tedx Talks 11 May, 2011 At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NwHjld1oIc (Accessed on 22 April 2019)

Stauder, M. (s.d.) Excerpts: Latitude Zero. At: http://www.moniquestauder.com/book/excerpts/bookcover3/ (Accessed on 22 April 2019)

What is Documentary Photography? (2011) [user-generated content online] Creat. Open College of the Arts September 28, 2011. At: https://www.oca-student.com/node/100125 (Accessed on 22 April 2019)