Now that you’ve reached the end of Part One, reflect on what you’ve learned in your learning log or blog.
This is a personal reflection piece and, therefore, presented without formal references.
What was your idea of documentary photography before you worked on Part One? How would you now sum it up?
My working definition of ‘documentary’, assuming I had one at all, was influenced by seeing those films and TV programmes that are described as being documentaries. It would be glib to say, ‘Documentary is what David Attenborough does’ but it gives the general sense. A documentary is a piece of work which it presented as being factual, whether narrative or not, rather than fictitious. I had not seriously considered whether a documentary could be a work of art or not, but agree with a general consensus that some of the Attenborough/BBC wildlife projects, such as ‘Blue Planet’ are beautiful and wide-ranging enough to be considered as art.
The working definition creaks a bit when considered in the context of a still image; moving images have a strong tradition of fictional narrative and therefore need to see documentary as a separate category, while still photography is automatically seen as evidential, unless there is good reason not to – such as obviously-constructed digital images.
Family holiday snaps are non-fiction but I would not normally classify them as documentary. I think the distinction here is that there is no general public interest in what Uncle John did on the beach at Margate. A documentary image or series needs to have some sort of public interest or message, whether the public initially knows about it or not. Lewis Hine’s child labour images, or the later 20th-century famine images from Biafra or Ethiopia are examples of documentary work that has brought its subject to the public attention.
Pure record photography, such as may be found in catalogues, encyclopaedias etc. is non-fictional and in the public interest but is, for the most part not documentary. The distinction is not clear but I suspect it is related to ‘newsworthiness’
While a documentary project must be ‘true’ (or at least non-fictional), my Part One research has demonstrated that it need not be objective. Anybody trying to put across a message is going to let some subjectivity creep in, whether in-camera or elsewhere on the journey to publication. In responsible documentary work, the degree of objectivity or subjectivity should be stated or made obvious. Ultimately, it is for the viewer to judge the degree of objectivity and, therefore, the amount of credence to be placed in the work and the amount of influence it can be allowed to have.
What are the differences between documentary, reportage, photojournalism and art photography?
The first three terms, documentary, reportage and photojournalism seem to be used interchangeably. For me, ‘documentary’ is an overall term for news- or current-affairs- related non-fiction. ‘Reportage’ and ‘photojournalism’ sit within documentary. If there is a difference, then suggest that it relates to the difference between ‘reporters’ and ‘journalists’ in the news media. Reporters give an ungarnished (subject to previous comments about objectivity) account of recent or unfolding events. Journalists gather material and present it as a ‘story’, whether analytical, campaigning or background.
‘Art photography’ is a slippery concept which I have still not fully grasped. Partly, it is a function of external context – something on a gallery wall is more easily accepted as ‘art’ than the same image on an inside page of a newspaper. I do not see ‘art’ as necessarily distinct from ‘documentary’, but could construct a Venn diagram showing the two terms as overlapping circles. Some images are ‘art’, some are ‘documentary’, a few are both and (probably) most are neither.