Definitions: Documentary Essay

I’ve been talking to a few students from my documentary class online or at my office about what a fine art documentary project is.  In essence, a documentary photo essay is a series of images that give you information.  That is all.  If you photographed your feet at 4pm every day (I had a student do that once), it’s a documentary project.  Why?  Well, if you’ve limited yourself in such a way to your feet at a certain time of day every day, there will be differences in each picture; what you’re wearing, where you’re standing, what your gesture is (yes, even feet have expressiveness) can be compared and compiled.  It shows us what the course of your week and month and year is, your location, your activities, your clothing, and we start to make other deductions, like what you do for a living and how much money you have.  Even something as simple as series of photos of your feet can be a documentary subject.

Muybridge documented motion in animals and people

Some argue that every photo is a document, because every photo records a moment, which is true…and false.  Photoshop, props, stories…these aren’t real.  They can make real photos, but that doesn’t make them truthful.  Even in something like a newspaper, “truthful,” is a relative term.  Even the mere fact a photographer is present and the subject is aware of them changes events…

And what of photographers who seek to tell a specific story before they pick up the camera?  By looking for a specific photograph and having an idea in mind, the photographer is no longer subjective and therefore it is difficult to say that the photograph is truthful in an empirical sense. And what would that be, when there’s always two sides to every story?

Agent Orange Victims In Vietnam, by James Nachtwey

All food for thought…  But let’s leave you with one more consideration.  No one said that a documentary essay had to be newsworthy in the earthquake/riot/outbreak sense of the word.  It simply has to inform with some basis of comparison, some methodology.  So here’s a nonurgent photo essay I found online that is lovely, poignant, beautiful, ugly and sad: 60 Minute Photo

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