Some think of “documentary” as a four-letter word; but life speaks too sweetly for that to be true
Markets & Careers
Documentary photography is often equated with the “ashcan school” of photography. There is a great misconception that the documentary photographer’s exclusive concerns are, and should be, downbeat. That misconception has been perpetuated by many documentary photographers’ subject matter: problems affecting the world—poverty, hunger, war, disease, and drought.
Among the 12 finalists in the 1985 grant competition of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, most proposals dealt with problems affecting our society. They were important subjects—of concern to all caring human beings. The applicants’ projects included studies of domestic violence, life-threatening AIDS, old age, the farm crisis, and South Africa. It was the stuff of which today’s headlines are made—tough and visually loaded.
I’m not knocking “concerned” documentary photography or photographers who choose to explore such subject matter. I applaud it. For years I have encouraged photographers to use their cameras for greater social purposes in the tradition of Lewis Hi ne and other great photographic social historians. As journalists it is our calling. As human beings it is our obligation.
What concerns me is that much contemporary documentary photography is preoccupied with the downbeat and almost excludes happier subject matter. The world, after all, is not fraught exclusively with problems. If it were, life would be unbearable. Fortunately, there is a positive social tapestry, rich with love, happiness, and contentment — tions that counterbalance sadness and despair. Reality can be positive as well as negative. I’m not suggesting that we “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,” as a popular tune once proposed. But documentary photographers should give us balance by choosing subjects that celebrate life, not only those that demean it.
Example: teenage pregnancy is a national plague. It disrupts many lives. A fertile subject, indeed (no pun intended), for a thoughtful photojournalist. But for every such pregnancy there is the teenager who emerges during puberty from bumbling awkwardness into blooming loveliness. It is one of the miracle transformations in the seven ages of man, worthy of being recorded by photographers with sensitivity and insight.
Just a few years ago, the advertisements heralding the rebirth of Life magazine gave documentary photographers a menu of potential positive subject matter. It read: “An opening night, a scientific wonder, a visit into space, a journey across America, a rally, a requiem, a gala, a celebration, a fad, a fashion, a festival—wherever there’s a story to be told in pictures, whenever there’s an event to be understood or some moment to be enjoyed, you will find it in the time-honored pages of the new monthly magazine with the time-honored name—LIFE.”
A documentary photographer can see the world as a circle of madness, death, destruction, and despair. Or the world can be seen as encompassing the rich diversity of life.
For example, W. Eugene Smith is perhaps best noted for the Minamata photo essay. This showed how man was fouling his own nest through chemical-waste discharges. Earlier, he was famous for his dramatic World War II photography in the Pacific. But the largest body of Smith’s work reflects affirmation of life and the human condition.
The real challenge for today’s documentary photographer is to deal with subject matter that is not visually loaded, to capture simple moments eloquently, to translate them visually so that universal human experience is recorded both for the present and for future generations to see the way we are and were. O