"To find your news story, look for the person with the sad face," advised my professor as she drew a :( on the board, and that became my most memorable lesson from Journalism school. Documentary photography thrives on powerful emotions and the media is quick to capitalize on this candid yet effective concept as evidenced by the most iconic images of the 20th century.
Photography rose as a legitimate medium at the turn of the century and its popularity and accessibility drove certain individuals to document the struggle and strife of that era. Today, we see images from The Great Depression, the World Wars, and many other social, cultural, and political movements as history-shaping moments of the past. But that was as real and as raw as life could get for pioneering photographers like Jacob Riis, Robert Capa, and Dorothea Lange who lived in those times.
Most of these lensmen saw and told of the suffrage happening all around them because they chose to immerse themselves in the dire situations. Lewis Hine was known for focusing on immigrants, child laborers, and the working class, yet always treated them with much respect. “I have toiled in many industries and associated with thousands of workers. I have brought some of them here to meet you. Some of them are heroes, all of them persons it is a privilege to know.”
Their purpose for taking the images were not merely for posterity, but for change. “I’m not trying to tell a story as such, but to work around a subject intuitively, exploring different vantage points, looking for its emotional truth,” said Bruce Davidson. “If I am looking for a story at all, it’s in my relationship to a subject.”
After the wars came the “golden age” of photojournalism. Magazines and newspapers were publishing more visual content over text, publishers were hiring more photographers, and awards were being merited to distinctive imagery . While readership and circulation increased, documentary photography became (to an extent) more about profit, prizes, or popularity. The more sensational a photo was, the more infamous it became.
The tenets of documentary photography are timeliness, objectivity, and narrative, and this is where the issue of ethics and morality come in. To get the “money shot,” some photographers put themselves in compromising situations or go through jeopardizing experiences which begs the question, when is a photographer a mere witness—a spectator on the outside looking in—and when is a photographer another human being with a conscience? When does one step back and take a photo for reportage, and when must abandon that task, if at all?
After all, a job is a job and for some, photography is the bread and butter. Radhika Chalasani, known for her Famine series, shares :
“Some photographers and journalists have a very absolute point of view that you never interfere, because your job is as an observer and you can do the most good by remaining one. I decided a long time ago that I had to do what I could live with in terms of my own conscience, so when it felt appropriate to try to do something, I would. There are certain situations you struggle with. We’re interfering with a situation by our very presence, and that automatically changes the dynamic. At one point, I was photographing a woman carrying her son into a feeding centre. He was extremely malnourished, and I was photographing her as she walked along. All of a sudden, these Sudanese people started directing her for the photos. They had her sit down and were indicating how she should hold her child. I ran to get a translator, and said, “Tell her to take her child to the feeding centre. She should not be stopping because I’m taking a photograph.”
Of course, that’s not to say that pain, distress, and misery are all that’s worth photographing. Conflict is an interesting though troublesome angle which doesn’t necessarily lead to iconic photos. The success of a shot depends greatly on the genuine emotion reflected and, as most of us have probably experienced, people can feel a whole range of emotions. It’s a matter of several elements elements coming together, like subject, setting and subtext, and capturing that perfect fleeting photogenic moment.
The money shot could be the uneasiness of a Caucasian woman sitting next to an African-American at a soda shop during the ’60s, or the relief of a soldier after returning home victorious over the Japanese during war. It could be a protesting monk who set himself on fire while others watched him perish, or it could be a couple of astronauts making their lone leaps on the moon. It could be a scene of domestic violence between a married couple at their home, or a violent pillow fight between a foursome of musicians in a hotel room. To find your story, look for the face that moves you. Showcase whichever subject and highlight whatever emotion; the key is its authenticity.
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