Anne Darling Photography

A History of Documentary Photography

The history of documentary photography presents us with the most accurate records we have of past events and the documentary photograph has been used to document pretty much everything from cataclysmic world-scale events such as war and terrorism right down to the minutiae of people's every day lives.

From the 1850s in America, photography was used for war reportage. Notable photographers in this era were Robert Fenton and Matthew B Brady who photographed the American Civil War and the Crimean War respectively.

history  of documentary photography lewis hine
Woman with injured finger being administered first aid in the infirmary of the Hood Rubber Co: Photo by Lewis Hine

Early documentary photography focused on industry and urban settings and often photographers used photography as a tool for social reform. Lewis Hine's images for example helped to pass the Child Labor Law in America. And during the Depression, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans produced photographs for the Farm Security Administration which documented the lives of farm workers in America and how the depression had affected them.

In the 1930s, the concept of a story told through a series of photography, a photographic essay, was born. In 1947, Magnum photography agency was founded by a group of like-minded photographers including Robert Capa and Henri-Cartier Bresson. A lot of photographs from World War II were produced by Magnum photographers.

It is this ability to work in series which separates documentary photography from photojournalism, often coupled with a moral stance on the part of the photographer who hopes to impart to the viewer a greater understanding of how his subjects live. This series of images, or photo essay, is more powerful in conveying the photographers than a single image by itself.

But is it art?

Documentary photography can happen with an event as simple as you taking a snapshot of the native rhododendron that you recently planted in your garden for your garden journal. The resulting photograph is not art, for it was never meant to be (found art or otherwise). It does not occupy a physical space designated for art (sometimes a museum or, perhaps, a wall in your house). It has no artistic merit that one can tease from its very existence (there emerges no creative form or structure, to put it most simply). And your snapshot of the rhododendron satisfies none of the other traits that aestheticians have put forth to define "art".

The picture of the rhododendron documents the existence of your tree. Its value is purely referential - it exists because it is part of a catalogue. Therefore, your snapshot of the rhododendron is a document and is classified as a documentary photograph.

At the other end of the spectrum, an art photographer makes a photograph that stimulates the mind and senses of the viewer; has artistic merit that satisfies the test of time or its place among other works of art or fulfills any number of ways that are sufficient for it to be considered art. It was not meant as documentary photography at all - although through accident it may be considered so for certain social cohorts.

The snapshot now in your garden journal and the art photograph are polarities. Someplace in-between them we find a hybrid of pure representation and pure art: documentary photography. Representational of a sociological or archaeological event deemed worthy of remembering, the photographer makes his or her pictures in ways that comment on or display a point of view about the subject.

Look for a series of books using the words "documentary photography" with the Amazon search box for info on famous photographers such as Cartier-Bresson and Frans de Waal.

Sebastião Salgado

Africa by Sebastiao Salgado
Africa by Sebastião Salgado

The first name that comes to my mind in exemplifying perhaps the best of documentary photography is Sebastião Salgado (1944- , Brazil). Salgado joined Magnum photo agency in 1994, contributing artistic, meaningful documents of global issues and cultures, as well as some of the most pristine places on earth (the better by which to remember them after time and man take their toll). Salgado is a highly respected photojournalist with a reputation earned from his black and white images of people taken in places from around the world. His work covers a period 30 years and shows us the effects of war, disease, famine and poverty in black and white images created with great artistry. Salgado calls on us to notice what is happening on our own planet, and often does so with the eye of an aesthete.

Salgado's photographs in his book entitled Africa explores the Great Lakes, the Sub-Sahara region and the south of Africa, from the Dinka tribes in Sudan and the Himba in Namibia to gorillas and volcanoes in the lakes region to displaced peoples throughout the continent. Salgado shows us all facets of African life today. Whether he's documenting refugees or vast landscapes, he knows exactly how to grab the essence of a moment so that when one sees his images one is involuntarily drawn into them. His images artfully teach us the disastrous effects of war, poverty, disease, and hostile climatic conditions.


Martin Parr

The documentary photography of Martin Parr contrasts starkly with that of Sebastiao Salgado: Parr's overtly humorous photographs document contemporary society, warts and all. Parr (1952-, British) waxes satirically on contemporary society.

Mexico by Martin Parr)
Martin Parr: Mexico

There is nothing subtle in Parr's picture of the tourist in Mexico. Reflexive - the hot pink woman taking a snapshot of something not shown in the frame - Parr's photograph takes the stereotype of the over-dressed tourist one step further: she is a contemporary philistine who has aimed her camera the wrong way. The ancient pyramid, replete with historical and cultural significance, becomes merely her excuse for "being there". With impish eye, Parr contrasts the colour, form, and scale of his woman with the simple grandeur of the weather-washed stone monument on the grassy, green plain. Martin Parr depicts our society as one of flighty interest and little intellectual curiousity.

Right: Martin Parr by Sandra Phillips

One thing Salgado and Parr do have in common is membership of the photography agency Magnum. Officially incorporated in 1944, Magnum was founded by leading photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, and Hungarian photographer André Friedmann.

The mission of the premier Magnum agency was far-reaching: wherever in the world social, political, or ecological forces tested the existence of man or of the earth itself, there would Magnum commission photographic work. The photographs made under the auspices of Magnum often document humankind's most degenerate forces while disarming the viewer. Documentary photography at its best undercuts beauty with truth, truth with beauty.

Chinese Female Imam

My own work has also resulted in series of images which come under the heading of documentary photography. The picture to the left of a Chinese female imam, or spiritual leader, documents a long-standing tradition in China where a woman can pursue a career as the spiritual head of an all-female mosque thereby acting as spiritual guide for the women in their community. It is a powerful and challenging role, and is accorded a high status within the community. If you would to find out more about China's Female Imams, you can preview my photography book of the same title by clicking here.

Of all the photographs in the book, I chose this one because of its aesthetic. There is a beautiful simplicity in the composition, not dissimilar to a holy card. And the gesture of her hands conveys the meaning of her life's mission without words. On another level the photograph challenges the prevalent notion that Muslim women are powerless. The media have focussed on the head scarf that Muslim women wear as a symbol of oppression and fear but this photograph demonstrates that there is another side. If you would like to read more on this subject, click here to go to the Featured Articles.

Seeing Eye Dog China
No Dogs Allowed (Photo: Anne Darling)

Documentary photography also has the power to draw the public's attention to ongoing social issues. In the above photograph, a blind man with his seeing-eye dog stands in the foreground at the apex of a triangle, isolated from the rest of the action within the frame. There is a busyness about the place of which the blind man is not a part. In the composition we see what the man might see. He becomes the central point within a vortex of activity - alone and quietly dignified with his dog. Two out of the three security guards have their gaze directed towards the man and are clearly discussing him.

This man is Zhang Dehong, a blind medical practitioner who is lucky enough to have a trained seeing-eye dog to accompany him on his travels. Out of 9 million blind people in China, Zhang is one of just three people who has one of these highly-trained dogs. As such, the law regarding access of seeing-eye dogs to public places is antiquated and does not yet protect the needs of people such as Zhang. When we entered the department store the security guards held a conference to decide the fate of Zhang and his dog, Ben-Ben. As the title implies, Zhang and dog were evicted shortly after. Documentary photography like this has the power to change peoples views and, hopefully, contribute to the pressure on the Chinese government to change the laws regarding blind people and their seeing-eye dogs.

Note: Using a mixture of Chinese and Western techniques, Zhang Dehong runs a clinic on the outskirts of Dalian in Liaoning Province where patients with spinal deformities such as rachiocamposis can be successfully treated. To visit the website of the Dalian Dehong Chinese Traditional Manipulation Hospital go to

Left: Witness in Our Time

If you work in the field of photojournalism or are studying in any field of photography, one of the most important books you will come across is Witness in Our Time . In the book, the recent history of documentary photography is explored through interviews with 22 of the top photographers of our time. Each chapter starts with an introduction by the editor followed by a first-person account from the photographer. This is what makes the book so absorbing as you feel you are learning first-hand from someone who has really been there. Some of the names you will have heard of such as Sebastiao Salgãdo and Mary Ellen Mark. Others may not be so familiar but the book will leave you with a lasting impression of what it is really like to be a working documentary photographer with all its joys, heart-aches, trials and triumphs. This book will not only change the way you view the world but also influence your own photography whether or not you work in this specific field. Highly recommended.

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