Exercise 1-1: What is documentary photography?

Listen to Miranda Gavin talking about documentary photography at What is documentary photography? and write a reflective commentary setting out your reactions to Gavin’s viewpoint.

Notes here: Miranda Gavin – What is Documentary notes

Because practitioners are approaching the idea of documentary in different ways, the question is asked as to whether the terms of description used (e.g. photojournalism, reportage and even documentary itself) are still relevant. The thought that we might need different words describe documentary is asked but no alternatives are advanced. I find this a convincing viewpoint that I share – it seems that much in the cultural landscape is now difficult to categorise with multiple crossover between genres, perhaps the influence of postmodernism? Beginning this course I began to think of photographers that interest me and whether they could be classed as documentary photographers. I found that most if not all could be classed as such – does this show my predisposition to this type of work or do I think this because every photograph can be referred to as a document in itself? I need to research these ideas and definitions of documentary’s many sub genres before I can make a more informed view.

The impact of changes in technology and culture on photography is seen as significant. Digital technology has meant that photography as a whole is now more accessible to everyone both as a practitioner and viewer through the internet. More women studying and practising photography is also a shift as this has led to changes in the subject matter of what is photographed. Undoubtedly, changes in technology have represented a paradigm shift – one that I would welcome as positive since it is one of the major reasons I can pursue in interest in photography. Likewise, there appear to be more women taking photographs and commenting on them but I have no direct evidence of this or data to show how much this has changed. Gavin can only offer anecdotal evidence of the increased ratio of female to male students she sees studying photography and does not share any examples to demonstrate how subject matter has changed. Perhaps she is referring to the macho image that documentary photography (all photography?) has had in the past? This clichéd view of photography as an extension of masculinity is not one that I particularly share or subscribe to. Although the effect of gender difference is an interesting question to pursue my gut feeling is that there is less difference than Gavin is suggesting.

Changes in the outlet for documentary images are discussed with the point that due to the decline in the editorial market the majority of photographers show their work online. This raises concerns over the effect this has on image aesthetics (described as the colour palette.) In order to have control over the way their photographs look photographers must create a physical object either in the form of a book or print for the (gallery?) wall. This choice invariably means that the work then becomes more skewed towards the art market than it would have previously, again, a reason why documentary practice may have changed over time and why it has become difficult to distinguish between what is a documentary and art photography.

Examples of how it has become difficult to put work into a specific genre are illustrated with the way Gavin does this in Hotshoe magazine. The separation of genres is used as a tool to navigate the magazine but the very act of doing this lead to the false impression that this is an easy process. Categorisation of work is often initiated by the photographer themselves and Gavin states there have been many occasions when she has been told that work she felt was documentary is art and vice versa. I agree that this process is unsatisfactory due to being too rigid but also that it is a necessary, pragmatic way the magazine needs to be ordered. For me, the fact that genres are falling into each other is a positive that provides multiple, exciting and diverse ways of exploring the world. Ultimately, I wonder how useful or even desirable labelling work into particular genres is, finding more accurate descriptions for photography requires more thought but is surely more accurate.


What is documentary photography? Interview with Miranda Gavin of Hotshoe magazine. (2011) Available at: https://vimeo.com/29752787 [accessed January 2017]

Further Research:

  • Miranda Gavin
  • Monique Stauder – Latitude Zero
  • Research definitions of documentary photography and sub genres e.g. photojournalism, reportage etc.



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