Important stories are not enough; Good documentary photography matters!

Documentary photography plays a vital role in shaping worldly ideals and fighting oppression. A good story can open our eyes to things we haven’t seen, even if those things have been in full view before. As powerful as that might be, I think photographers in this field have a bit more leeway than they should, especially when it comes to the quality of photography.

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Documentary photography compared to the rest

Landscape photography.

When we look at other genres in photography (portrait, landscape, editorial for example) we have an expectation of what these images should look like. For portraits, we want to see sharp eyes. With landscapes, we strive for multiple layers and perfect composition. And editorial standards mean crisp, well-lit photos that are perfect for print and digital.

In photojournalism (a closed genre related to documentary) the only real expectation is to tell the truth. That’s why we allow out-of-focus, out-of-focus, and poorly composed images to do the press. As long as people can see the story, that’s what’s most important. I agree that we should give more freedom to photojournalists, especially those who work in hostile environments. I challenge anyone to think about the rule of thirds or perfect focus when in the middle of a riot or, even worse, a war.

Good documentary photography matters

With documentary work, photographers tend to have more time. They have the luxury of being able to be more methodical in their approach to image making, especially if it’s a long-running project. Yet far more often I see documentary photographers submitting mediocre images hoping that the story will be enough to grab the viewer’s attention. Sometimes a story is compelling enough that the photographs don’t need to be so strong. However, this is often not the case, and poor photography only detracts from the intended message.

“If you want to influence ideals and open eyes, you have to have work that grabs people’s attention, regardless of the story.”

It’s not uncommon for me to see images that are just snapshots, like the photos your grandparents might take. Some photographers try to hide their poor photography by using elitist language in their submissions, but you’re not fooling this editor. I know terrible photography when I see it, and in today’s era it’s almost impossible to tell a story that no one has seen before. Many photographers tackle climate change, meddle in the social divide and, more recently, document the pandemic. With that in mind, it’s not hard to find a photographer who tells an important story while submitting a solid set of photographs.

Solid documentary photography is important

Image by Rob Walwyn

I would say that in documentary photography, strong imagery is more important than in other genres. It can be a tough pill to swallow, but most people don’t want to read about what’s wrong with the world (not on a deep level, at least). If you want to influence ideals and open eyes, you need to have work that grabs people’s attention, regardless of the story.

I think of the work of Rob Walwyn. We featured it in August 2021. Its images were infrared film photographs looking at the New South Wales landscape. With or without context, Walwyn made some stunning pictures, and they caught the attention of our readers. Once the footage sucked them in, Walwyn was able to share the realities of the bushfires that destroyed 80% of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area.

final thought

No matter how powerful your story, exceptional photography should be at the forefront of what you share. Documentary photography is not photojournalism. Most of the time, you don’t have the same pressures. So if you’re working on a project and think your images get a pass, think again. I’ll say it again, it’s now more important than ever (especially when you’re battling for people’s attention) to have compelling images that hold the viewer’s eye. Otherwise, you can forget awareness and say goodbye to change management. So put the work into your storytelling and imagery; you will exploit much more success.

Stewart C. Hartline