“After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing anymore whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin. ”
— Jack Kerouac, from the Introduction to “The Americans by Robert Frank
Documentary Photography can be a very vague and broad genre of photography and can step into various other styles; therefore the best way to define it is as a narrative approach. Documentary photography can be defined as a form of photography that can be used to chronicle events or environments that are relevant in terms of history. From big historical events to everyday situations, documentary photography can be applied. The great thing about this approach is that it can be used from amateur and fine art photographers, to professional photojournalists and various academic and historic purposes.
Being a traveler (experienced or not) offers a strong asset for any photographer due to the inherently different perspective we introduce inside any foreign environment we could get in touch with. Even though documentary photography has been strongly related to social issues, it can also help for complaint like the various photographs available that show the ongoing decay of our environment. The main difference between documentary photography and any other genre of photography, is that the act of documenting results in a broad spectrum of a specific topic, and genres usually can be narrowed down to individual pieces of work.
Important Documentary Photography of the 20th century
- The Americans — Robert Frank
Robert Frank created an important work called “The Americans” that centered on the post-war America; the final work was used to create a book that was first published in 1958. The book is a sad poem sucked out of America, and is considered to be one of the most influential books in photography. The book is indeed a complicated portrait of the period that was viewed as skeptical of contemporary values and evocative of ubiquitous loneliness. Jack Kerouac saw this and wrote the introduction of the book, here is a fragment of this introduction:
That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film. (Jack Kerouac, from the Introduction to “The Americans” by Robert Frank).
In this work, Frank liberated the photographic image from the compositional tidiness and emotional distance of the work that has been done before him. That is why “The Americans” is considered to be a milestone in documentary photography.
- The Great Depression — FSA
In the years between 1935 and 1943, a group of photographers assigned by the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) were assigned to document the harsh reality of the population’s poverty during the great depression. This economic event caused a massive inter-statal exodus that was documented in order to introduce America to the Americans. One of the most iconic images produced during this effort is the Migrant Mother from Dorothea Lange.
- Prague Invasion — Josef Koudelka
This is perhaps one of the shortest yet famous documentation inside the great history of Photography. After returning from a field trip to Romania in August 1968, Josef Koudelka entered Prague just one day ahead of the Soviet Union invasion of Czechoslovakia. During one week, Koudelka photographed ceaselessly, documenting the fear and gloom of Prague’s population. He photographed from tanks to protests, to even a poetic image of a wrist watch that announced the beginning of the aforementioned invasion of Prague.
- Country Doctor — W. Eugene Smith
W. Eugene Smith was famous for his long (really long) projects. One of my all-time-favorite works with a documentarian approach is without any doubt “Country Doctor” from Smith. This project became an instant classic when first published. Smith was a master of documentary photography with an exquisite narrative approach. He is considered to be one of the most passionate and influential photojournalists of the 20th century. This work focused on the pure vocation of Medicine Dr. Ernest Ceriani, who needed to travel long distances on the rural contexts. You can watch 38 images of the series here.
We can mention a couple of great examples of documentation that are not as distant as the aforementioned ones.
American photographer Matt Black has been doing an important work that may be compared to FSA’s effort of documenting the great depression thanks to the New Deal, and Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. It could be compared because of its importance, its magnitude and its subject. This work has been defined as an “A journey through forgotten America”, and Black has been travelling around his country documenting poverty. He’ll be travelling nearly more than 70 cities and towns connected by a simple yet tough fact. They should have at least 20% population living in poverty conditions. The documentation will center on the struggles and triumphs of the people at the heart of these places.
I’m a huge fan of John Free, and maybe he is not as famous as other photographers, but his work is perfect for illustrating the meaning of “meaningful work”. I’m not sure if he has closed this project on tramps, but he has been documenting the life of these roamers and travelers from the railroads with such a heart and intimacy, which I couldn’t just held it for myself; I needed to share it with all of your Photo Traces readers.
Using the Documentary approach while traveling
Documentary Photography is not only for journalists and professionals only and even amateurs can use it for documenting travels. Since pretty much everything has been covered by many other people in history, the act of researching has a tremendous importance on documentation. Another great element of documentation while travelling is the narrative approach.
By taking some quality time for doing a bit of passionate research about a place we are willing to travel to, we can have a huge advantage that otherwise couldn’t exist while travelling. Many of the things in photography and other disciplines have already been made from several different points of view and perspectives. This should not discourage us as travelling photographers; this should motivate us to seek new ways of doing things. Each and everyone of us as have the ability to express our vision and our feelings about what we are seeing with photography. Photography is a simple recording act of the way we see life. It is important to read news and inquire about previously done work around particular subjects. In this way we will know a little more about how things have been done before they are seen by our eyes.
Time is extremely scarce when traveling, which is why the narrative element of our documentary effort must be clear before embarking on this type of work. This is a task that we’ll improve over time, and eventually we’ll achieve a certain level of mastery. The success behind the good projects of documentary photography is the planning and the clarity of the story we want to tell. If this does not exist, it will be pretty hard for us to achieve good results, especially while traveling because everything is more limited to us.
Due to our different perspective, we can see things that are too obvious for locals to notice. During a short trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was able to be surprised like no local could. I’m from El Salvador, and thanks to the mayhem of our cities, pedestrian crossings are everything but respected. Xing’s are rarely seen due to lack of maintenance on the paint. In Buenos Aires I saw something completely foreign to me for the first time in my life, pedestrian crossings could be respected and pedestrians could orchestrate order. Xing’s were respected; Xing’s were brightly painted and played an important role in the city. I know, this could sound silly to some of you, but trust me; this is something that you won’t see in my country, ever. This serendipitous moment helped me into making a brief essay where I could document the relationship that exists between the pedestrian zebras and the city. It may not be a valuable or aesthetically wonderful work, but it exists thanks to the foreign perspective that only a traveler can introduce into a previously established society.
Try to think about a certain topic that you wish to document before travelling, and do some homework, you’ll get surprised to see how many things have been done around a certain topic, but don’t worry, you are the one that could show us the world from a different perspective. It is important to stick true to yourself while travelling; you don’t know when you’ll stumble into something completely odd for you that have been unnoticed by regular society of a country or a city. Those are the best jewels of travelling photography, and you could be the one that discovers them with your cameras.