The photograph as a document

What do we expect from a documentary photograph?

Not staged, for it to capture a moment, have a purpose or meaning, and the subject doesn’t know they’re photographed. It’s a true representation – a moral photograph.

Though can everything be argued as documentary photography? The word ‘document’ means to ‘evidence’ and photography is a medium in which it is used as evidence that something happened – and this is true for every photo taken. So arguably, yes, every photo could be documentary photography.

During the 19th century, tech and social change enabled Victorians to use the camera to record, classify and witness. They used it to classify criminals and those with mental illness for example. Photography proved a lot of history. There is no way of knowing if they are staged, we take them as fact. However we do know some things about Victorian photography – for example, the photos of small children that seem very sweet were mostly taken after death as a record of their memory as having your photo taken was very costly.


One of the most significant uses of the medium as documentary was in criminology, with albumin print. The Bertillon system consisted of one full face photo and one profile. Photography was used to prove who people were. The photos were often accompanied with notes about their features.

In the 19th century, its been used in more positive ways to improve society – charity, class issues, poverty, education. The idea of celebrity began to become more possible because we could link photographs and spread them globally. In the 70’s Susan Sontag said ‘in teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe’. My interpretation of this was that the second part is true in relation to propaganda, and that I agree the person behind the camera can make the subject more important by taking its photo. When film was only available, what you photographed was more limited, however today we can take as many as we desire.

Within this subject we then looked at oral history research methods. This is when you hear a person, sometimes the subject of the photo, speaking, and explaining what is happening.

To see an example of this we visited the Holocaust exhibition at the war museum. When you sit down to listen to the stories, you are placed opposite a replica of a concentration camp and photos are hung on the wall. Hearing their accents and emotion in their voice, whilst telling their stories, immediately changes the images. You begin to see life from their shoes and the photo has so much more meaning.



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