Miranda Gavin on Documentary Photography

What is documentary photography?

The above is a short video interview with Miranda Gavin, a freelance writer, photographer, blogger and educator. Made about five years ago, some of her questions are still as valid now as they were then. These days, amongst other things, she writes on The Roaming Eye Blog (formerly Hotshoe Blog ) which in her own words is:

an eclectic dip into the world of contemporary photography and lens-based media from a multidisciplinary perspective.

So what are my reactions to her viewpoints and questions raised? Firstly I think we need to establish exactly what Documentary Photography is in essence, before we decide which photographs do or no not fall into this category. As far as I can establish Documentary Photography is photography that follows a single topic or story in-depth, over time and normally used to record significant and historical events – both in the outside world and also for more personal and intimate occasions. In theory it should deepen the audiences understanding and emotional connection to a given topic and historically was presented in an unaltered, truthful format- somewhat along the lines of photojournalism. Abigail Solomon-Godeau (1991) stated that ‘in the nineteenth century almost all photography was what would later be described as ‘documentary’.'(cited in Wells. 1997, p.63)

These days photographers have become more creative and artistic with their photographs but they still document the event, or provoke a need within the audience to alter a given situation.

A prime example would be Uffe Weng who successfully staged images to highlight the Greenpeace protest against the Lego/Shell partnership. Others closer to home would be the twee newborn baby photo or creative wedding albums widely available.

Now, as Gavin points out, and even more so since this interview, modern technology and ever changing publishing outlets have blurred the lines and made differentiating some work quite tricky. Personally, I quite enjoy the more creative/surreal images produced and can recognise their intrinsic value, as well as the need for more “straight/truthful” photo stories.

Gavin wonders if older terminology is still relevant within photography today – ‘reportage, photojournalism, documentary.’ Well, if Photoshop can use ‘dodge’ and ‘burn’ I can’t see why not, although maybe some newer ones could be thrown into the mix.

Picking up on her comment with regards to the ratio of women:men on photography courses, it is interesting to note that although the ratio may not be as large, women seem to out number men in most UK universities – so maybe her reasons given are not just availability of access etc. Having said that without digital photography I doubt that I would be on this course, but that opportunity to use digital is also still available to men. However, I do think that her remarks on the topics covered, and how the female viewpoint will impact upon the bodies of work being produced are valid. Most notably I can think of the recent (ish) exhibition on Motherhood and Identity which included Elina Brotherus’ staged self portraits documenting her failed IVF attempts.

From reading annasocablog I found the following interesting reading:

The April 2014 issue of the BJP is entitled Women only. In the editorial comment, Diane Smyth, deputy editor, states: I’ve been struck by how male-dominated photography is.” She tallies up the numbers of Magnum members: 8 women out of 85 members of whom only 4 are living; VII Photo has 21 photographers, 5 of whom are women; only 14% of the entries to into this year’s World Press Photo were women. By changing the gender balance of practising photographers, you would indeed change the content of documentaries.

Just as it always was, documentary photography is produced for everyone, to reinforce their ideas or alter their perspective, you will either agree or disagree with the points they are trying to make, feel strong emotions – positive or negative – or feel indifferent as you don’t care about the subject matter. In order to reach a large audience you do need to consider what platforms you are going to use. Another random side note: nosing about, apparently more women than men use Instagram so if wanting to raise awareness of testicular cancer don’t use Instagram…unless you target the girlfriends to do the checking and nagging (insert cheeky smiley) so maybe that isn’t such a bad idea….

The remarks made with regards to colour accuracy etc don’t just apply to documentary; advertisers, designers, fashion houses, artists et al must cry when they think of the small mobile phone screens being used to view their work. How many laymen colour correct their dust covered screens, which sit in the full glare of the sun….? In this respect the controllable printed image is still very important, but then this raises the question of printed where and how? Magazines and books do not always do justice to larger images. Who controls what advert an article is placed next to? Badly placed ads

To see a genuine print limits the audience to those who go to exhibitions and that won’t get your message across. So, in truth, to send a message these days you have to be prepared to use multiple platforms and not worry too much about the finer detail on some; the message often outweighs the clarity of the image. (Was the dress blue or gold and white?) Do we ask the photographer or the audience …shudders thinking of Barthes whispering in my ear about dead authors…what category it should be placed in? I guess that only matters if the reader only flicks to a given section within a photography magazine.

I did find I found exception to the idea that documentary work wasn’t ‘commissioned’ as much was and still is, Nick Hedges for example, was commissioned by Shelter in 1968 to expose “the poor housing conditions and abject poverty being endured by people across Britain.”

Interesting video which asked more questions than gave answers, which I guess was the intention and certainly made me do the usual wandering thoughts hence more than the required 200 words reply……


Hedges, N. and Museum, N.M. (no date) Make life worth living: Nick Hedges’ photographs for shelter 1968–72. Available at: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/Plan_your_visit/exhibitions/make_life_worth_living (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

Shontell, A. (2011) The 22 most hilarious, unfortunately placed ads ever. Available at: http://www.businessinsider.com/22-funny-bad-ad-placements?IR=T#-1 (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

1611, annag (2014) Annasocablog. Available at: https://annasocablog.wordpress.com/category/coursework/part-1/page/2/ (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

Putz, H. (2016) Home truths – the photographers’ gallery. Available at: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/photography-motherhood-and-identity (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

Association, P. (2016) Gender gap in UK degree subjects doubles in eight years, Ucas study finds. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jan/05/gender-gap-uk-degree-subjects-doubles-eight-years-ucas-study (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

Vaughan, A. (2014) Lego ends shell partnership following Greenpeace campaign. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/09/lego-ends-shell-partnership-following-greenpeace-campaign (Accessed: 10 October 2016).

Wells, L. (ed.) (1996) Photography: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.

What is documentary photography? (2016) Available at: https://vimeo.com/29752787 (Accessed: 10 October 2016).