Photojournalism & Documentary--What's the difference?

Discussion in 'Street and Documentary' started by arond a., Jul 5, 2004.

  1. I was watching a taped program, Egg, on PBS today. The episode featured a
    photographer, Joseph Rodriguez, who described himself as documentary
    photographer. The segment focused on his work with former gang members
    who were trying to reform their lives. It also covered his work with young
    adults in youth correctional facilities in California. Come to think of it, there
    was a featured essay by him in the May issue of Sun Magazine.

    Getting to the point... The program featured his style of photographing, which
    consisted--at least in part--of actively engaging his subjects to get just the
    right shot. There was nothing subtle about it. 'Turn your head a little to the
    left, now down... that's great.' 'Now stick your finger out so the baby can grab
    hold of it... wonderful.' This all struck me as very odd since he described
    himself as a documentary photographer. It begs the question: What's allowed
    in a photographic discipline that claims some greater adherence to reality &
    objectivity than other forms of photography with no such claim (e.g., corporate

    I understand that photojournalists who want to be taken seriously within their
    profession must at least put up the appearance of being 'objective.'
    Therefore, it's assumed a photographer won't stage manage a shot. I recall
    an incident a fews years ago where a photographer won a top prize for a
    photo he took of a firefighter dipping his helmet into a pool with Malibu in
    flames in the background. It later came to light that he had, directly or
    indirectly, suggested his subject do something he might not have done
    otherwise. In other words, he intervened in the shot. The photog had his
    reward rescinded as a result.

    My question is: Are so-called documentary photographers held to a different
    standard than their phojo colleagues? To what degree is a documentary
    photographer a photojournalist? What's the difference, anyway? Where do
    people like Joseph Rodriguez fit in? How common is his technique? Is it still
    regarded as legitimate documentary work? Legitimate photojournalism?
    When, if ever, is intervention acceptable?

    I confess that after having seen the program, I can't look at Rodriguez's work
    the same way. I don't trust what I'm seeing. I underwent similar
    disillusionment when I learned that a favorite photograph by Bruce Davidson
    was staged (small girl levitating in front of cemetery).

    I'm genuinely curious what others think about this. And I don't meant to
    provoke another tired discussion about objectivity in photography. (Yes,
    everyone knows no one can be _truly_ objective...) Rather, there is a
    difference between discriminating between moments and stepping into the
    moment to arrange a shot.

    What do you think.
  2. I work at a newspaper myself so I consider myself a photojournalist.

    The difference, to me, is that the documentary photographer interacts with its subjects. Asking them questions and such. Rodriguez behavior, on the other hand, kinda stinks of studio photography. A person filming a documentary will interact with the subjects, asking them questions and this and that. Etc.

    The photojournalist, like us newspaper folk, don't say anything. The best thing for a newspaper person to do is to not exist. At most I can imagine the photographer smiling to show that s/he is human and to make the subjects feel a bit more secure. Something like that.

    I keep thinking about a WONDERFUL documentary, "War Photographer", about James Nachtwey. He, at most, shook the subject's hand and then started/continued shooting.
  3. There seems to be an element of the polemical in the best documentary work by its very nature, whereas journalism is supposed to simply capture events objectively. That's the big picture difference; when you start looking at it broken down, it's easy for the difference to become obscured. A photojournalist might go out and shoot pictures of a fire, for example, and move on to something else: the fire itself is his or her subject, and he or she isn't particularly interested in making a point. A documentarian, on the other hand, would shoot the fire with the intent of making a point: fire fighting is dangerous work; smoking in bed is stupid; arsonists follow similar patterns; or burning buildings sure can look pretty. Even though the pictures the journalist and the documentarian took might be identical, the uses the pictures would be put to are not. A documentarian would also tend to string events together in a series (this is how they make their point); journalists react to events and seldom have a given focus. Journalists can and do make documentaries of sorts; the features you might see in your Sunday newspaper are a kind of documentary, for example. Documentarians, on the other hand, almost never step away from what they do, although they obviously employ the tools of journalism in their craft. This is a broad brush. Now that I'm thinking about it, I wonder where someone like Don Pennebaker would fit in. He made documentaries of the rock music scene in the 60s that were seldom overtly polemical in nature. Perhaps the line between documentary and journalism is becoming more defined in these polarized times... Anyway, if I had to sum it up in a phrase, a journalist finds the story and lets that story tell itself as much as possible; a documentarian is more active in telling the story, and isn't above helping it move in the direction he or she wishes when necessary.
  4. Arond:
    I just finished reading Eyewitness. This book goes through 150 years of photographs. Most are photojournalists but many drifted into documentary work as well. It's a good read about some well-known photographers and gives a decent short history of how it works. It seems to be available at most libraries. Conni
  5. Jon:

    Where would you place the National Geographic photographers -- Cobb, McCurry, Harvey, Stanfield, Abell -- to just name a few? Is their work documentary, or do they perform photojournalism?
    Best regards,

    -- dev.
  6. Journalism has an agenda.
  7. Easy: Photojournalism is intended for other people, Documentary is for one's self.
  8. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Journalism has an agenda.
    The implication of this is that documentary photography doesn't, which is dead wrong. In the definitive text on documentary photography, William Stott's Documentary Expression and Thirties America, Stott details the origins and continuing evolution of documentary photography, making it clear that there is always an agenda, even "an axe to grind" (his term), in documentary work.
    By contrast, photojournalism often refers to what might otherwise be called "reportage," which frequently requires the photographer to shoot everything and have it edited by someone else, which hardly gives the photographer the ability to work to an "agenda."
    I highly recommend that anyone wanting to get beyond the most simplistic surface view of documentary photography take the time to read Stott's book.
  9. "Joseph Rodriguez........How common is his technique?"

    Intervention/staging is, sadly, really common in

    "Is it still regarded as legitimate documentary work?"

    I don't think it should be, but there appears to be a growing
    acceptance that it's legitimate. Things seem to be coming full
    circle regarding staging - it was commonplace in the early days,
    it grew to be frowned upon, but right now it seems to be
    mainstream again. Not so long ago I provided a link to the work
    of Rodriguez along with that of Donna Decesare
    ( in a now deleted thread on LA gang
    culture, but without making any comment on whether I thought
    the work was good or bad. Both Rodriguez and Decesare have
    been awarded Mother Jones bursaries for "documentary
    photography", so judging panels (and normally MJ have
    reasonably smart people on those panels) evidently consider
    their work to be legitimate. It's worth taking a look at the picture of
    the child on Decesare's opening page of her site, does it look
    staged? Obviously I wasn't there but it certainly doesn't look
    natural to me. More recently, in this years World Press Photo
    awards there have been allegations that one of the winning
    pictures (of a supposed couple getting married in China while
    wearing masks during the SARS epidemic) was staged - as of
    now WPP have declined to make a statement as to their position
    on this. Brian Walski, the guy who was fired from the LA Times
    for faking (via photoshop) an image in Iraq, would have every
    right to be wondering what exactly his crime was in view of the
    seemingly ever more elastic concept of what's legitimate in
    documentary/photojournalistic work.
  10. Imo there's no difference except perhaps photojournalism deals
    more with current events.
  11. Jon: Where would you place the National Geographic photographers -- Cobb, McCurry, Harvey, Stanfield, Abell -- to just name a few? Is their work documentary, or do they perform photojournalism? Best regards, -- dev.
    This time I'll use paragraph breaks :)
    I think the answer is they perform photojournalism in the service of making their documentary. Someone above brought up the issue of editorial control, and that's obviously a huge issue (and one I didn't directly touch on in my post above) because the person who exercises editorial control ultimately dictates the meaning of a given piece of journalism, whether that journalism be a photograph, or (harder, but still doable), the written or spoken word. I once had an editor strip the message of a story I'd written by cutting out everything but a couple of sentences. She was afraid that the piece as I'd written it would anger some people; I was too arrogant in those days to re-write it when she ordered me to, (I'm probably still too arrogant), so she basically reduced my story to a few quotations. Without the context I had set, the quotations were almost meaningless, and a hard-hitting piece was reduced to mush. Similarly, a photograph's meaning is largely dependent on context; control the context, control the message.
    I'm not familiar with the photographers you named; however the reality is, very few photographers exercise editorial control over their work; therefore I doubt they would be considered documentarians, although their work could be used as part of a documentary. I hope that makes sense. At the heart of a documentary is a message, and messages are generally too complex for a photo or two to communicate.
  12. Though editorial control is a real issue, I think it dodges the point about the intent of the photographer regardless of editorial issues. To me, a documentary can survive the creation of a portrait of subjects. I draw the line when one begins to stage events. I'm less clear myself on photo-journalism or reportage. A news person should not be creating the news though I'm not sure that anyone can be a truly "objective" non-participent, unless hidden. The fact that a photographer is at an event can and does sometimes alter the dynamic of the event itself. Further, the stylistic conventions and techique of the photag also can and does color the results.
  13. "A news person should not be creating the news though I'm not sure that anyone can be a truly "objective" non-participent, unless hidden."

    I think I suggested that in a thread a while back: Photojournalist Blinds. An empty garbage can maybe? With the PJ dressed as a street person and cunningly using a hidden camera?

    Conversely, why not just forgo the attempt at objectivity? Join that street gang. Do a couple of drug deals and maybe a drive by too. Just ask your homies if you can bring a camera along.

    Photography has always suffered from the misconception that it is somehow privileged over other mediums in capturing reality, when in fact what it does is just a better job at effacing its status as interpretation.

    The lesson you should have learned is to mistrust all photography - not just Rodriguez's.
  14. Just looking at Free-definition definition:

    Here's part of it: Photojournalism is a particular form of journalism (i.e., the collecting, editing, and presenting of news material for publication or broadcast) that uses still and moving images to tell a story. Photojournalism is distinguished from other branches of photography by the qualities of:

    So perhaps the big differentiation of photojournalism over documentary is maybe the idea of timeliness? That there is some sort of immediacy or deadline involved. Now that might be a daily paper, weekly magazine or monthly, etc. A documentary may be less time driven?

    The public expects, perhaps wrongly, that journalists present news and that editorial (as in "opinion") is segregated from the news. Likewise they have been led to expect that "documentary" means true. I haven't noticed too many journalists or photojournalists trying to disabuse them of that. Or famous documentarians either.

    A lack of accuracy may not be misleading. A field guide for bird identification I've used intentionally distorts or emphasizes some identification features because to include all features may make it too hard to really grasp the most important or easiest to acquire. Yet they say so.
  15. 'Conversely, why not just forgo the attempt at objectivity? Join that street gang. Do a couple of drug deals and maybe a drive by too. Just ask your homies if you can bring a camera along. "

    Right on dog!

    "The lesson you should have learned is to mistrust all photography - not just Rodriguez's."

    Concur, the choices one makes hidden or not, is already an abstraction. Plus the process itself, and the framing alone, is an abstraction. I think it was Winogard amongst others who talked about a photograph is only a picture of reality, not reality itself. But the paradox is, that even though it is a lie to say that a photograph is a reliable recorder of reality, it can by its nature, reveal truths about reality that the eye alone doesn't always see or can't see. And thats a long discussion in itself.
  16. "Photojournalism" by definition is a noun meaning the presentation of a story by using pictures. "Documentary" can be either an adjective or a noun. If used as a noun, the definition assumes "facts presented using the media of film or television." Assuming today's technology, digital presentation could be included. So what? Arguing the minor differences in word meaning or interpretation is fruitless if one is discussing ART, IMHO. "Objectivity" is philosophical and varies with any individual. <<Rather, there is a difference between discriminating between moments and stepping into the moment to arrange a shot.>> I contend that the mere presence of the photographer recording an image changes the continuum of that moment. :) If you search for "Truth", photography is not the best path to walk.
  17. David Hurn presents an interesting answer to the "documentary" part of this question in his "On Being a Photographer" book.

    I won't steal his copyright by quoting it here (especially since everyone should read that book), but the basis of it is that saying you are a "documentary photographer" or that you do "documentary" work is an improper name. It implies that the work is unbiased and just shows things as they are. However, just by being the person that each of us are, we can NEVER do any completly impartial work. Our lives and experiences will ALWAYS affect how/where/when we take a photo. Not that this is a bad thing, but that we need to realize that it exists.

    I happen to agree with him. But many do not.
  18. Interesting discussion. In this context, does anyone know of anything on the topic of the photographer's intent as a defining characteristic of the various categories of photography?

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