Legacy documentary for social change – Nick Danziger

Nick Danziger can be best described as multi-talented: a photographer, filmmaker, writer, storyteller and humanitarian, born in 1958 in London he grew up in Monaco and Switzerland, so his upbringing may have impacted upon how he viewed the country of his birth as well as the far-flung places he visited. At the time it was written in 2009, a Digital Camera interview informs us that Danziger was happily shooting with Olympus film and digital cameras.. a little research may update the models…

His first book,  Danziger’s Travels in 1987, and a second book, Danziger’s Adventures, followed in 1993. His third book, published in 1996, Danziger’s Britain, was a social and political commentary on the state of Britain, and was said by the UK’s Independent newspaper to be, “so important that every one of us should read it and weep”.

His photographic book, The British (2001), was awarded Best Monochrome Illustrated Book by The British Book Design & Production Awards in 2002, and was selected by The Sunday Times as one of its Photography Books of The Year. Since then he has been award many accolades, published more books, and has been recognised for raising public understanding of contemporary social, political and environmental issues through documentary films and photography, being the holder of the Royal Geographical Society’s Ness Award .

Most of his projects capture the world’s dispossessed and disadvantaged looking at the effect of conflict and extreme poverty, with much his work sponsored through NGO’s, although he has used crowd-funding for his work in Transnistria – a landlocked region between Moldova and Ukraine.

In an interview, Danziger pointed out the importance of using fixers, or doing extensive research before setting out.

It’s very important because time is often limited…in the past [I’d] have no idea and just discover everything… you can also miss out on a lot that way. It can be really good to go with quite a bit of knowledge…discover new thing…all the best-laid plans always change so it’s a real advantage to do the research.

He found this important in both his travels abroad and for his project in the UK; it takes a lot of preparation:

Wanting to go to different regions, cities, towns, rural areas… trying to find contacts in different places that would give me the access, the variety, the help. Everything I do is really teamwork…

Before the real advent of the internet he would make many phone calls and visit people and places before they would allow him to document things. ‘You can’t produce quality work unless people are really accepting of you.’ Trust is therefore important and he does not wish to exploit people but to ‘represent them in what I think is the right light.’

With some of his subjects he remains detached, but with others, even 20 years on, he is still in contact. He had some pertinent comments to make about remaining objective:

I think there’s something between being objective and looking at the situation beyond what’s in front of your nose…when I’m taking pictures of something that might disturb people then it’s because it is disturbing and I don’t think we have to objective in that kind of situation.

 I’m not trying to give the big picture…life is so complex…I’m just trying to look at snapshots., something that might give you a picture. ..It’s not, like I’m trying to describe or show the entirety of what’s taking place.

It was also reassuring to discover that he is never satisfied with his images, so in moments of self-doubt I can say to myself that ‘it’s ok as Nick Danziger doesn’t like his work either!’ Something else I found interesting was his disregard for social media, not overly using Twitter or Facebook. He argues that in the first place he does not have the time; thinks it more important that the correct people see his work rather than thousands of meaningless clicks, but does recognise he is in a lucky position that he is already a known photographer; finally, as his work is often rather sensitive, he doesn’t want following as access could possibly then be denied.

On researching his work Danziger prefers natural light and publishes both B&W and colour and I wondered why. He has stated that the reasons he likes B&W is due to it focusing the mind on the subject and does acknowledge that sometimes colour can add an extra dimension. So me being me, and nosey, I thought I’d ask:


Am not sure if this is the correct email address to ask this question…I am working in a secondary school supporting within the Art/Photography dept as well as undertaking my own OCA Photography degree. We are currently looking at Documentary images and the history of B&W and why photographers still choose this over colour. As Nick uses both I was wondering if he could tell me, or if there is an interview anywhere that I have not been able to trace online that states how he decides which he will use?

and fairly quickly I got a response for which I was very grateful :o) So thanks to Neil Burgess.

Hi Jan,

I’m Neil Burgess, Nick Danziger’s editor at NB Pictures. It’s pretty straight forward with Nick, as a matter of choice I think it’s fair to say that 90% of the time he would choose to shoot in B&W. The other 10% are occasions when colour might be so central to the story as to be silly not to. But often clients will dictate the use of colour ; so when he is working with a magazine or NGO that needs colour he will shoot it.

Just to say, a lot of photographers like using B&W because you can (somehow) be clearer with your ideas; with what it is you are trying to say, or direct peoples’ attention towards. B&W is an immediate abstraction from the way we normally see the world, so it’s easier for viewers to think about it as something other than a ‘photo-copy’ of what was in front of the photographer; as a picture.

Colour can be very distracting: the colour of a shirt or a sweet wrapper on the floor in the corner of the image, can draw attention away from the subject. It’s a whole other dimension to juggle.

There is an element of fashion in the choice too, and changes in the technology have effected what people use. For example back in the early 1980’s all the newspaper supplement magazines had changed to using full colour presses, at vast expense, (because you could charge far more for a page of advertising in colour, than in B&W). So newspaper editors pushed their designers and photographers to produce colour content; you couldn’t give away B&W pictures! Then in 1987 someone produced a fantastic feature in B&W and in a moment people realised that in the right hands, for the right subject, B&W could be phenomenally powerful.

Today I think photographers make the choice based on their preference, their clients, the subject and use the pictures might be put to. But with the new technology you can shoot both at the same time if you like!

Go luck with your course

The course work specifically mentions The British which was heavily influenced by Bill Brandt, another ‘outsider’ who captured the British social landscape and is described as ‘nothing short of social activism.’ Again off I went for a bit of quick research…

Andy Beckett from The Guardian had some interesting observations, but without seeing the whole book it is hard to comment if he is right or not…picking out the odd paragraph here and there:

What do modern Britons look like? Nick Danziger thinks he knows. During this “photographic journey” across the country, [showing] us women in ballgowns and pale, bony people gazing hungrily out of windows; men in suits talking confidently in corridors and crammed halls of bingo players with docile, defeated expressions…

Danziger writes about a country “caught between beauty and decay”, and this traditional view of Britain as a once-grand, now-declining nation frames all that follows.

The book is divided between photographs of the powerful… and the vulnerable… Danziger presents these social contrasts as a betrayal: “I was brought up to believe that the British gave notions of justice and fairness to the world,” he writes, “but I have never been more struck by the class divisions.”

… once you get used to the irreverent composition of the photographs, [of the ‘Establishment’] there is not much more to look at.

Danziger is more sure-footed taking pictures of the poor…Yet not everything is dour and grim: one picture of two shirtless boys playing in the spray of an opened fire hydrant in Glasgow, has a whiff of joyous anarchy about it, the street turned into a paddling pool, no traffic in sight, the spray partly blotting out the tenements.

… newspaper and magazine photographers have been documenting the lives of the poor for decades. Whether they need a coffee-table book like this to draw attention to their situation is open to question…  Danziger works hard with his captions to give each picture more than merely symbolic relevance. A portrait of a middle-aged man with down-turned eyes and a once-proud moustache turns out to be a 54-year-old former shipyard worker from Barrow-in-Furness who, eight months after Danziger photographed him, left a note for his wife, went for a walk and was found as a waterlogged corpse.

Most of the bleakness this book pictures is in northern towns and cities…The south of England outside London features little.

There is barely a single photograph here of anyone buying anything – surely the favoured occupation of today’s Briton. There is no one in a traffic jam, or booking a budget air ticket, or overworking at a call centre. There are virtually no businessmen – surely the real “Establishment” now.

Danziger might argue that this …is just the product of a temporary economic boom, and that the ancient class structures he portrays will soon reassert themselves…other students of Britishness, such as the film-maker Patrick Keiller, have been exploring this new social landscape for some time, and their findings feel more revealing than the old-fashioned hierarchies presented here. Perhaps it’s time Danziger went down to Sainsbury’s with his camera.

I was surprised at how scathing it came across ( if you want to know a bit about Keiller there is an article here which has other links to follow). Danziger was documenting what exists and what he thought should be shown…I daresay if he only photographed the shoppers in Sainsbury’s he would have been criticised for ignoring the poorer quarters!

The comment about the boys in Glasgow, with everything not being ‘dour and grim…one…has a whiff of joyous anarchy about it’emphasised how the reality of a situation may not reveal itself through a photograph as Danziger later explained that Parkhead was ‘one of the few places I’ve been to where I needed a chaperone. Scary!’

Having lived in South London all my life I would like it known that we too have areas of poverty, which get overlooked occasionally, but sitting on the fence, recognise that in the North, when the heavy industry went it was totally decimated, so it will be a topic covered by many and if showing social divide, which still exists, not all your images can be of middle class semi-detached suburbia..even if that has shifted to new towns. But hmmmm they DO actually make up a lot of the population so where are they?


Beckett, A. (2002) Beauty and beastliness. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/jun/15/society (Accessed: 17 December 2016).

Broadbentius (2016) Finding light in the darkness. Available at: https://broadbentius.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/an-interview-with-nick-danziger/ (Accessed: 17 December 2016).

Digital camera (no date) Available at: http://www.nickdanziger.com/library/pdf/NickDanzigerDigitalCameraFeb2009.pdf (Accessed: 17 December 2016).

Home (no date) Available at: http://www.nickdanziger.com/ (Accessed: 17 December 2016).

Name (1999) Categories. Available at: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/ippr/photography-of-politics-and-people-interview-with-nick-danziger/ (Accessed: 17 December 2016).






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