Research point: Contemporary awareness 1

As directed, I have looked at a range of contemporary documentary photographers, those suggested in the course notes and a couple I’ve added. I will attempt to say something about all the practitioners, not just those whose work appeals to me (sometimes it’s interesting to note why something doesn‘t appeal).

Richard Billingham (+ Nan Goldin)

Richard Billingham is best known for Ray’s A Laugh, his very candid chronicle of life with an alcoholic father and an obese mother. The down-at-heel subject matter and cheap, grimy aesthetic reminded me of Nan Goldin and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, but interestingly for me it didn’t stand up to my impression of the Goldin work. I had to ask myself why: the Billingham work is closer to home – I am of northern English working class stock, and whilst I didn’t grow up in an environment like this, I have known families like the Billinghams, I’ve been in their houses.

Untitled (from Ray's A Laugh) © Ray Billingham
Untitled (from Ray’s A Laugh) © Ray Billingham

I think that’s the exact reason I found the images hard to admire… a little too close to home? I can admire Goldin’s work as I am detached from it, the New York scene was never my home, I can be a ‘class tourist’, a voyeur into lives I might not otherwise see. With Billingham I was reminded of aspects of my life that I thought I’d left behind, and that made me uncomfortable.

This led me to a realisation: empathy with the subject matter can work both ways. A positive image of a known environment is nice to look at, whilst being reminded of negative things can be repellent; conversely, looking at positive images of an unknown environment is just dull, while the misfortunes of people outside of your own experience can be fascinating.

Is it social documentary? Billingham doesn’t seem to be overtly making a particular ‘point’, or seeking to move anyone’s opinions on a subject. In a sense it is simply a set of raw, honest ‘family photos’ that got treated as ‘art’.

In any case, the very idea that an art buyer pays to hang these very personal images of poverty on a wall as ‘art’ doesn’t sit well with me.

Briony Campbell

Campbell is best known for The Dad Project, a very personal account of watching her father’s terminal illness. I was interested to see what other work she had done. Her projects set in Africa stood out as good examples of Campbell’s very people-centric photographic style; there’s a warmth that comes through her use of individuals to imply narratives. She’s skilled at capturing gestures, expressions and ‘moments’. The images are documentary in nature, but whether they are ‘social documentary’ is pretty subjective.

Luc Delahaye

The interesting thing about Delahaye is how he straddles the normally quite distinct worlds of photojournalism and the ‘art world’. He has shot images that are clearly documentary in nature, and others that are more etheral and abstract – all from the same source material: war zones. He shoots on a large format camera and exhibits wall-sized prints that sell for thousands of dollars, yet the subject matter is the kind of thing seen daily in newspapers, magazines and on news TV – bomb sites, angry mobs, bodies.

One clue to this apparent contradiction is the title of his war-zone project: History. He seems to want to rescue these images from their transient, repetitive, ongoing-present and preserve them life-size as historical artefacts for the future. It’s a bold approach to documentary, no doubt about it. I think the fact that he makes so much money out of these images on the contemporary art market makes it easy to be cynical about his intentions, however.

Melanie Dornier

Dornier describes herself on her website as a documentary photographer and specifically talks about working on “stories that relate to my personal life and that can contribute to positive change“.  One thread that comes across strongly is the question of identity, especially in her work in India and China. Another distinctive aspect that emerges is giving voice to women in these countries; she seems to want to redress the traditional male bias in these societies by highlighting the lives of the women and girls.

Nadav Kandar

Whilst very interesting to look at, I found Kandar’s work to be a little too ‘conceptual’ and constructed to be examined under the lens of ‘documentary’. His portraits and typological studies of e.g. buildings are undoubtedly good photographs, and I have bookmarked the site for future reference, but he seems an odd choice for this list.

Steve McCurry

McCurry is the one I knew most about before I undertook this particular bout of research. I visited a fantastic retrospective exhibition of his work in 2014 and have one of his photobooks, although I confess I haven’t looked at it as much as I expected to.

Here’s the thing though: I never really considered him a ‘documentary photographer’! To me he’s a travel photographer par excellence, and his use of colour, light and composition is exemplary. But his photographs are of things (people, places) while real social documentary photographs are about things. I’m sure I’m doing the man a terrible disservice, and it’s most likely as I’ve seen his images taken out of their original context, but there you go. Sorry Steve.

Mimi Mollica

Mollica is a new name to me, and a great find so thank you, OCA course notes. The London shots are great exampes of contemporary colour street photography, not an easy genre to pull off. And the Athens and Brazil shots really give a feel for the ambience of these places.

Some of her work is more overly documentary in nature, such as Disability in India and Miscarriage of Justice in the UK, though I have to say I like the more broad-scope street photography / sense-of-place projects.

Brent Stirton

Karo People, South West Ethiopia © Brent Stilton 2007
Karo People, South West Ethiopia © Brent Stilton 2007

Stirton is very much an issue-focused documentary photographer, as evidenced by his simple project titles: India Blind; South Sudan Early Marriage; Mozambique Landmines and so on. He combines interesting subject matter with often very striking compositional skills, yet avoids being too sensationalist. In many ways he covers similar subject matter to McCurry but with a more overly photojournalistic approach. Stirton (along with Thompson) is one of the photographers on this list that I have found most admirable.

Medford Taylor

Taylor’s work reminded me a lot of McCurry’s – very colourful and well-composed but perhaps a little shallow? I really like the way he sees the world,but I didn’t feel particularly moved by anything. Again, a fantastic travel photographer but not necessarily a documentarian.

Ed Thompson

Like Stirton, Thompson is what I’d consider to be a classic social documentarian: subject matter includes Syrian refugees, the English Defence League, battery farm hens; vigilantes; the Occupy movement. Unlike Stirton, he covers subjects closer to home and in this sense feels like more of a potential role model – this type and quality of work feels achievable! I don’t always say that about photographers that I admire. In this respect, Thompson may become something of an influence on my upcoming assignment.

From Rehome © Ed Thompson 2010
From Rehome © Ed Thompson 2010

On a purely technical point (something I rarely comment on) I noted his preference for square framing – very unusual, especially for ‘serious photography’.

Albrecht Tübke

Like Kandar – lovely work, but not ‘documentary’.

And finally – one of my own favourites:

Alec Soth

The contemporary photographer whose work has excited me most over the last couple of years is Alec Soth. His Gathered Leaves show in 2015 was my favourite exhibition of the last few years. He sometimes chooses reasonably broad subject matter – Songbook is about the anxiety and nostalgia of modern American life – and sometimes more specific, such as the Mississippi river, Niagara Falls or hermits.

Adelyn, from Sleeping by the Mississippi © Alec Soth 2000
Adelyn, from Sleeping by the Mississippi © Alec Soth 2000

His images have a slow, elegaic feel to them, almost like he’s reverentially mourning the passing of a way of life before it’s completely gone. He may not be producing social documentary or photojournalism in the traditional sense, but he’s certainly capturing life in the more modernist vein of, say, Robert Frank or Walker Evans.

Sources (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016) (accessed 03/02/2016)


Research point: Forgotten communities

Identifiable trends in documentary photography – such as the more personally-driven work typified by the New York school, or the growth of colour documentary, or the deadpan chronicling of the likes of Parr – may come along and add to the mix, or even be the predominant ‘flavour’ of the time, but in the end they add to rather than replace the more traditional social-change-driven documentary.

The work of Manuel Rivera-Ortiz (b.1968), Sebastiao Salgado (b.1944) and others demonstrates that social documentary as activism, à la Riis, Hine, Lange, Evans et al, still continues to exist in the modern world.

Rivera-Ortiz and Salgado

The course notes highlight Rivera-Ortiz and Salgado in particular for the work they did with communities affected by poverty in developing countries. One of the interesting aspects of both men is the gestures they have made to ‘put your money where your mouth is’ (if that’s not an inappropriate phrase for non-profit based endeavours…). Rivera-Ortiz established a foundation in his own name, with the stated mission:

“… to support photo and film reportage as a catalyst for change and social justice in communities where needs are most pressing.” –

Salgado promotes the rights-free delivery of images to those at the centre of the cause in question, giving back to the affected community the ‘voice’ the the work has amplified. This way the photographer cannot be accused of having an agenda, or from exploiting the cause for his or her own gain.

In the 2005 University of California interview Salgado and curator Fred Ritchie speak of the difficulty of getting images published in the mainstream US media and the need to work in different media and different countries to circumvent the prevailing editorial constraints – which speaks to the extent to which the mainstream media get to drive the narrative in many western societies.

One interesting question (to which I do not have a simple answer) is the extent to which the continued expansion of the internet into developing countries will make information about such ‘forgotten communities’ easier to communicate, without the editorial control of big media – or will it get subsumed in the torrent of imagery that multiplies on a daily basis?

British photographer-activists

You don’t need to travel quite so far away from home to find ‘forgotten communities’ and in turn find the photographer-as-activist. In recent years I have visited exhibitions of UK-based photographers who use the camera as a tool for pushing a social change agenda and giving voice to more local communities.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Nick Hedges (b.1943) produced a huge body of images taken to highlight the squalid living conditions that some of Britain’s poorest families were suffering. These were finally exhibited in 2014/15. Did they instigate social change? It’s not clear whether they directly led to policy change, but the main use at the time was as part of Shelter’s political campaigning for better housing conditions.

More recently, Mark Neville (b.1966) is a UK photographer who has worked on a number of socially-driven projects, including Deeds Not Words, which I saw in 2013. This focused on a specific geographical community, Corby in Northamptonshire, affected by a spate of childhood deformities linked to the disposal of toxic waste by the local council. Neville’s method of distribution was interesting: he produced a photobook that wasn’t generally available but sent to 433 UK local authority environmental health officers, and selected international environmental agencies – an audience he believed might actually have an influence on policy on contaminated land and toxic waste. However, it remains unclear how successful this was in actually leading to any changes in policy.


The course handbook asks us to consider a couple of questions:

  • Is there a connection to be made with the work of Riis and Hine in the first half of the twentieth century?
    • I think so; the context is different, the media landscape is different, the horizons of many viewers have been vastly expanded – but at bottom the aims of the activist-photographer is the same: to use images to drive social change (not simply to witness or chronicle)
  • Can a documentary photographer really make a difference?
    • Some can; Rivera-Ortiz and Salgado clearly have – but I’m not wholly sure that ‘making a difference’ is as common as simply ‘raising awareness’
    • Salgado goes as far as to say in the interview clip that it’s not enough to show problems, one must also show solutions

Sources (accessed 27/01/2016) (accessed 27/01/2016) (accessed 27/01/2016) (accessed 27/01/2016)


Assignment 1: decisions to make

As noted in my first assignment 1 prep post, I believe I’ve settled on a subject for the assignment, namely the perception of older people in UK society.

Right now I have a few open questions I need to ponder on – and drop my tutor a line about.

1. Viewpoint: premeditated or observed

  • Do I take a ‘point of view’ stance upfront and seek out images to match my intent/hypothesis? (more subjective)
  • Or do I take a series of initial shots with an open mind and look for a theme or angle to naturally emerge? (more objective)

The former might help in terms of bring out a successful and clear message; the latter seems to be more in keeping with purist ‘documentary values’ though. Unless I’m being naive…

2. Consent: authorised or unauthorised

  • Do I gain permission to shoot in a particular place/event with the right kind of subjects?
  • Or do I go renegade and just shoot on the street whenever I get the opportunity?

The former feels more honest and less exploitative, and has the further advantage of getting the subjects in the same place at the same time; the latter feels more scattergun and might take a lot longer to get the good shots.

Note: I have asked for permission from a local charity to shoot at their day centre, but have so far struggled to get any kind of response.

3. Subject engagement: posed or candid

  • Do I ensure all subjects are aware per shot of why I’m shooting that particular image and ask them to act in a particular way?
  • Or do I  just gain general approval to shoot (e.g. at an event or venue) and take each image in a candid, natural way?

The former doesn’t feel totally appropriate to ‘documentary values’ but I know that many so-called documentary photographers do this (to illustrate a generalised rather than a specific truth; the latter feels more ‘honest’ but may lead to missed opportunities.

4. Shooting style: straight or stylised

  • Do I shoot in a classic documentary style e.g. clear, sharp, deadpan, unpretentious (no photographic ‘tricks’)
  • Or do I take a more stylised approach and e.g. shoot at very specific angles, focal lengths, creatively use blur or out of focus areas, manipulate light and shade, obscure framing etc?

The former feels more ‘honest’ but might be more difficult for a message to break through; the latter suits the ‘premeditated’ approach message-wise (I have a specific idea I will summarise below).

Current concept

The specific idea at the front of my mind would answer the above questions as follows:

  1. Premeditated
  2. Authorised [subject to getting approval!]
  3. Candid
  4. Stylised [mostly]

The concept is: a two-part series of images of older people:

  • in the context of everyday life – being ignored in society at large – depicted by photographic techniques such as the subject being out of focus, being in shade, being cropped off at the edge, being obscured by other people/objects, being desaturated etc
  • in the context of their own social circle – being active, being part of a group, being happy and accepted

However: I’d appreciate some advice on whether this idea sounds workable, or whether there are aspects I haven’t considered yet.

I’ll drop my tutor a note now…

Assignment 1: initial thoughts

I’ve been thinking about Assignment 1 on and off all the way through the first section of the course and I think now’s the time to get some of these thoughts down in writing.

I’m going to reproduce the text from the brief here, with my own emphasis and comments. I will hopefully find this useful to refer back to! In the past I have been known to drift off the brief somewhat (sometimes this turns out OK, sometimes less so…).

Produce a set of 12 images in your own style that incorporate documentary values.

The first key word appears early: style.

Before closely reading this brief my assumption was that this assignment would necessitate a pretty ‘straight’ documentary style. Much (not all) of the preceding reading and research is predicated on what I consider to be a classic documentary style: neutral, ‘truthful’, objective – recording what is in front of the camera and letting the subject do the talking. No fancy photographic technique.

However, here I interpret that the work can (should?) step outside such straight documentary stylistic constraints and incorporate an element of personal style – which I read as including a distinctive visual style and/or photographic techniques?

I will come back to this question as I have unresolved questions on style…

Base your images on an issue or subject that you feel needs attention or which you already support. The subject can be anything you like provided that the cause you choose can benefit from your work in some way.

Two subjects came to mind early on:

  1. I’ve recently started volunteering for a local food bank
  2. I live in a town with a high population of senior citizens, which has started me thinking about how older people are represented and perceived in today’s society

As interesting as it could be, the former is however very problematic as a project subject: there is a significant degree of sensitivity around the privacy of users of a food bank charity, as these are often the most vulnerable members of the community and deserve their dignity. As volunteers we are expected to uphold high standards including signing confidentiality agreements, assuring anonymity of clients and so on. So whilst I do feel passionate about the subject in itself, I do not feel morally entitled to exploit the people in question for a photography assignment. This is not to say I never will – at some point in the future it might become more appropriate/acceptable for me to bring my photography study into the volunteering environment, but not right now.

The latter subject is less politically/morally charged and so may be easier to engage with; on the other hand, the message is potentially less obvious, more vague? (for now at least). It may take more imagination to make it an engaging set of images.

Right now I am focusing on the latter idea: the representation of older people in society.

Think about gesture, pose, setting and the inferred meaning or message that your work gives to the viewer (denotation and connotation).

I’ll come back to this once I’m closer to actually shooting. I’m slightly wary of over-planning this upfront as it risks taking too strong an ‘angle’, and the whole work could be influenced by a preconceived set of ideas. A more ‘pure’ documentary approach would be to observe rather than impose a message.

Explain the values that each image has, why it is of value and to whom, and how it may be of benefit to either a group of individuals or perhaps an organisation or charity.

Maybe I’m overanalysing, but I’m seeing similar but different words here, and I need to be clearer of the context: values (plural) implies principles, whereas of value (singular) implies of worth. Including both these in the same sentence is confusing me slightly. But I shall aim to keep both in mind while planning, shooting and selecting my images.

Depending on your choice of subject, you may wish to contact an organisation and gain permission to work in an area that would normally be off limits to photographers.

I have contacted the local Royal Voluntary Society, which does a lot of work with the elderly, to request access to one of their centres, to observe their volunteers and their users/clients. I’m awaiting their reply.

Don’t be deterred if your chosen subject been done before – you may be able to introduce a new slant that no-one else has brought to the subject.

Oh, I’m quite sure it has…! Not going to stress over that.

Above all, this assignment calls for style and you’ll need to think carefully about this before you start work. Show how you’ve tested different approaches and finalised an approach and photographic style that you feel is the foundation for your future practice in social documentary.

Now, this is where I start to have concerns. The word style comes up again. I do have a couple of distinct approaches in mind, one of which is more-or-less straight documentary, while the other is more conceptual/stylised. More on this in a future blog post.

The ‘think carefully about this before you start work‘ part concerns me. My preferred way of working (followed for most of the assignments in my last course, Context & Narrative) is to start shooting with a reasonably broad idea in mind, review the first one or two batches of images and see if a thread, or a theme, or a narrative is forming – then continue shooting with this in mind, honing as I go along.

Finally, the ‘foundation for your future practice‘ bit also bothers me a little. I have no idea what my future practice in social documentary might be like – I intend to do, but haven’t started, the Documentary module as my other level 2 course. So such a statement of intent feels somewhat premature. I’m allowed to still be experimenting, right?

Your images must be sized up to be able to print with some quality at 16×12” 320 dpi. You’re free to work in black and white or colour.

I’m a little baffled by the specific size constraints, given that the nominal output format for this particular exercise is a book rather than gallery prints – but I’ll keep it in mind.

Enough for now – I’m going to drop my tutor a line and report progress so far, and ask her a bit of advice on the style question…

Research point: FSA and Migrant Mother

The importance of the FSA project

The 1935–44 Farm Security Administration (FSA) project led by social scientist Roy Stryker is arguably the most important example of state-sponsored social documentary in photographic history. It was intended to support the Roosevelt government’s ‘New Deal’ following the devastating impacts of the Great Depression that gripped the USA in the 1930s.

In the context of photographic history it provides a groundbreaking case study of using photography to help drive social change. It is not without reason that virtually every significant book on the history of photography makes mention of the FSA project, and many famous US photographers passed through its ranks, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano and Gordon Parks.

Authorial and editorial intent

One of the most fascinating but problematic aspects of the FSA project was the complicated set of influences placed on what would be photographed, how it would be photographed and what intended messages were expected by the different parties in the project.

Whilst clearly falling into the social documentary category, it raises questions on the extent to which the message can be controlled – and researching the project unearths ongoing tension between the participants on what the objective of the project was, and how best to achieve it.

Initially, the brief was to provide motivational images of those Americans that were still working  (Wells 2009: 97) but most of the photographers gravitated towards what they saw as the ‘real story’ of the poor, dispossessed families leaving their homes and making gruelling journeys across the USA to find work and food. Evans and Lange in particular felt it their duty to tell the stories of the displaced, regardless of the ‘shooting script’ they had been given. Lange is quoted putting it simply: “We were after the truth, not just making effective pictures” (Wells 2009: 40).

So the photographers often veered off brief in terms of the subject matter. Some went further and applied photographic techniques that lift the images above pure record and add layers of emphasis and connotation that move into a more subjective and emotive style than the FSA intended. Stryker’s ‘mistake’ (or alternatively his masterstroke) was hiring good photographers; they couldn’t help but apply their skills. As Sontag puts it in On Photography:

“The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration […] would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film – the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry.” (Sontag 1979:6)

Whether they did this consciously or not, taking an aesthetically pleasing, well-composed image (such as Migrant Mother) can help in evoking empathy in the viewer – and so furthered the objectives of the project.

Once delivered to FSA headquarters, however, the images were subject to strict selection and editorial control. The FSA effectively acted as a picture agency, choosing what images to place where to support the government’s intended message. The message evidently evolved over time, as by 1939 the FSA published many of the images in the book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion – a title that demonstrated that the ‘official’ intent of the project did indeed move towards depicting the Depression’s victims, as per the photographers’ intent.

By 1942 though, the aim had swung back towards boosting morale. Sontag quotes a Stryker memo: “We must have at once pictures of men, women and children who appear as if they really believed in the US. Get people with a little spirit.” (Sontag 1979: 62). Once again the final say on what is shown to the public rests with the financial patron – in this case the government.

This raises important questions on the ‘truth’ (accuracy, authenticity, objectivity) of so-called social documentary, which may purport to depict ‘cold, hard facts’ yet always has an underlying set of assumptions (objectives, angles, viewpoints, prejudices, directives).

The FSA project stands as a reminder that one must always endeavour to find out who has instigated and funded a particular work – and attempt to ascertain their intent. In particular this point applies to state-sponsored documentary, which at its extremes becomes propaganda.

Migrant Mother

Wells (2009:39-49) includes a comprehensive study of Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 image known as Migrant Mother, and offers a number of ways to analyse the image and its impact. Whether some or all of these factors can be applied to all documentary images is questionable, as few photographs gain the iconic status of Migrant Mother.

At its base, it is a social/historical testament: “The woman is used purely as subject. She is appropriated within a symbolic framework of significance as declared and determined by Lange” (Clarke 1997: 153).

Beyond the simple brief, Lange made decisions on how to shoot and in particular what to include and exclude. The woman had seven children but only three are included in the image. The close framing excludes the surroundings (tent, landscape) that would have placed the scene in its appropriate FSA-directed context. The choice of this specific exposure had a number of effects; removal of environmental cues made this a more universal image, easier to empathise with. As long as it is presented in the context of other photographs that do place the scenes in the appropriate context, the power of this image is magnified, not diminished, by the close framing.

The expression on the woman’s face and the bringing of her hand to her chin both suggest deep thought, inviting the viewer to ponder what is on the woman’s mind (survival?) which intensifies the emotive connection. Two of the children hide their heads, a gesture of shyness or perhaps embarrassment (their faces are visible in the rejected images from the shoot).

The allusions to existing art, namely the Madonna and Child, are plain to see and almost certainly a significant reason for choosing this exposure.

Wells also considers the effect of the title (1997: 43-44). It has been alternatively captioned Seasonal Farm Labourer’s Family and Destitute Pea Pickers in California, a 32 year old mother of seven children – but the former implies the presence of a husband-father and the latter clumsily contradicts the image contents. Migrant Mother is loaded with significance: migrant is a potent word, conjuring up images of having to leave home to survive, and mother is such a universal image that one can’t help but empathise. The simple alliteration didn’t hurt either, it made it all the more memorable.

The gender aspects of an image of ‘The Mother’ taken by a woman is discussed (Wells 1997: 45). Women photographers were rarer then than now, and Lange was a pioneer. Her legacy is of bringing a depth of compassion to social documentary that was hitherto lacking in the more ‘objective’ work of her male peers (Wells 1997: 45, quoting Fisher 1987: 131) and has since become a widely accepted aspect of documentary work.

Finally, the image became so famous that it transcended its documentary roots. It was (and continues to be) reproduced and reused in a variety of contexts, including art gallery walls. Its universality was sealed in its inclusion in The Family of Man (Steichen (ed) 1955). It became shorthand for the FSA, for the Great Depression, for early 20th century American photography, for women photographers, for documentary photography.

It became a symbol of so many things that it ultimately developed a life of its own. Very few images do that.


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Steichen, E. (ed) (2015) The Family of Man (60th Anniversary Edition). New York: MOMA.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

Research point: Riis, Hine and others

The course notes follow the pattern established in numerous photography textbooks of bracketing together Jacob Riis (1849-1914) and Lewis Hine (1874-1940) as part of the nascent history of social documentary, despite their differences in approach and style.

Here I will compare the two with a view to highlighting the part each played in the development of the genre. As requested in the notes, I will also touch upon a few British practitioners of the same era.

Jacob Riis

Riis emigrated to the USA from Denmark in the 1870s and settled in New York. Initially struggling to find work and therefore seeing the poverty of the slums first-hand, after some time he became established as a police reporter and he made it his goal to campaign against the social inequality of the time.

Riis did not consider himself primarily a photographer; to him the camera was a means to an end. Wells (2009:78) relates how Riis’ frustration with the lack of impact of “mere words” led him to move to taking pictures. His determination led to him becoming a pioneer in the use of flash – the tenements were too dark for natural light photography so once magnesium flash was available he chose to use the technology to literally (and metaphorically) shine a light on the appalling conditions suffered by the New York poor.

His most famous work How the Other Half Lives (1890) is one of the first examples of published social documentary, and in the words of Clarke (1997:147) “associates documentary photography with a moral and radical vocabulary”, setting an early benchmark for what documentary photography can achieve.

New York Tenement – Jacob Riis, c.1890

His style was objective in the extreme, documentary in the literal sense as well as under the accepted definition of social documentary. He took pictures without permission – the subjects often heard men approaching, saw a flash of light and heard them scurrying away – and in almost all cases the subjects do not face the camera. Wells (2009:78) quotes Stein (1983:14) as attributing the lack of subject gaze to a very deliberate idealogical decision: “That he rejected those rare photographs in which the subject did happen to look back suggests how premeditated the effect was”.

Riis had a rough and ready style that disregarded the technical norms of the time (composition, posing etc) and insisted on showing the previously unseen truth of how the poor lived and died. His visceral, uncompromising approach would be softened by Hine and others in subsequent years before being reclaimed and magnified by contemporary social documentary photographers decades later.

Riis deserves his place in the history of photography as a pioneer of the medium as a tool of social communication and change. That his style was a little crude for some tastes and was succeeded by a more stylised form of social documentary is, however, understandable.

Lewis Hine

Although often mentioned in the same breath as Riis, Hine is remembered as being altogether more nuanced. Where Riis was the objective photographer thrusting blunt images of poverty in people’s faces, Hine took a more humanist and hopeful approach.

For a start, Hine was a professional photographer who knew how to make aesthetically pleasing images, and he was hired by the US National Child Labor Committee specifically to record the use of children in the workplace. He applied a more thoughtful approach to his work, and spoke to the subjects to find out more about them before taking their photograph.

His images come across as less ‘angry’ than those of Riis, and display a deeper understanding of the complexity of social issues. While Riis shot his subjects as though inmates in a human zoo – emphasising their ‘otherness‘ – Hine appealed to the viewer to empathise with the children in his images.

Sadie Pfeifer at Lancaster Cotton Mill – Lewis Hine, 1908

Hine applies more subjectivity to structuring his message, as though he understands how to affect his audience better than Riis did. Clarke (1997) puts it well:

“Hine’s great strength, however, was to inform each image with a complex (but seemingly effortless) awareness of the multiple contingencies which informed and controlled an individual’s life.” – Clarke (1997:147-148)

This is maybe the crux of the difference to Riis: Hine was concerned with individuals. The subjects are never simply ciphers to be exploited to make a point, they are people. One gets a greater sense of the horrors of social injustice from Hine’s work as he is more successful in personalising the problem being examined.

Early British social documentary

The course notes suggest a few names to research to compare how British documentary photography developed in parallel with the better-known US examples examined above. Once again I find myself scratching my head regarding the examples chosen.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) is famed more for her portraits, often of the celebrities and upper class of the day, and for her artistic techniques such as selective focus than for any social documentary work. In a sense the most interesting aspect of Cameron’s work from a sociological point of view is that she was one of very few women practicing photography at the time – but the work itself displays no significant social or moral dimension.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941) gave an exemplary extended study of place and community identity in his work on Whitby, bringing to life the character and activities of the seaside town in Victorian times. His work was sympathetic without being overly sentimental, everyday without being banal and objective without being harsh or impersonal. He is perhaps closer to my idea of a documentary photographer than Cameron was, in that he was documenting Whitby life – yet I see no campaigning imperative, no social conscience, no overriding desire to educate or change. So again I wonder if he is a representative example.

Finally, Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) is mentioned. Yet again I question the inclusion: he is most famous for his use of early photomontage (along with the likes of Oscar Rejlander). Like Cameron and Stieglitz, Robinson is most renowned for pushing photography closer to the status of art.

Given that I basically disagree with the examples provided – none of them strongly demonstrate a moral or campaigning element to their most famous work – I felt the need to do a little more research of my own.

Whilst a strong thread of social documentary photography would establish itself in the 1930s with the work of Bill Brandt and others, including the Mass Observation programme of social research, my objective here was to find British documentarians in the same era as Riis and Hine, broadly the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century.

Thomas Annan (1829-87) fits the bill, being a photographer of Glasgow slums as early as 1866 – some time before Riis had established himself on the other side of the Atlantic.

Fellow Scot John Thomson (1837-1921) worked with radical journalist Adolphe Smith to expose the conditions of life in the less salubrious quarters of London in the 1870s.

Both of these can be considered to be peers of, or equals to, Riis and Hine – if less well-known.


Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.