What is Documentary Photography?

This artistic discipline, different to photojournalism, captures real scenes in the unique style of the photographer

Photography lovers have been transported to far-away corners of Brazil by Sebastião Salgado’s photos. They have roamed the streets of Paris through the eyes of Robert Doisneau. Documentary photography freezes conflicts, stories, and scenes in time, yet using a more artistic and authorial approach than, say, photojournalism.

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Robert Doisneau
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Sebastião Salgado
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Sebastião Salgado

Differences between photojournalism and documentary photography

While, on the one hand, photojournalists seek to capture a decisive moment in the most accurate way possible and share it as quickly as they can with readers around the world, documentary photographers have different priorities.

As there isn’t the same level of urgency with documentary photography as photojournalism, the photographer has more time to plan the shoot and prepare the set or location.

Contemporary artists

Award-winning photographer Marcos Zegers (@marcoszegers)–who teaches the course, Documentary Photography Projects–shows that you can create art just in the way you capture a space. He has been influenced by artists such as Pentti Sammallahti, who photographs wide spaces using a minimalist composition, and the results are striking.

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Pentti Sammallahti

He has also been influenced by the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who construct visual narratives by repeating images of buildings, showing the industrial activity taking place in various locations.

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Bernd and Hilla Becher

Themes and inspiration

Everything and anything has the potential to inspire a documentary photographer to create. While living in Europe, Marcos Zegers read a news story about some Chileans trapped in the Russian steppes for over 40 years. He decided to travel to where they were to cover this strange and peculiar story.

The images he captured ended up being published in The New York Times, which gave rise to new opportunities.

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Marcos Zegers

Over time, Zegers has realized the importance of covering significant events. "If the stories are important, they will be published," he says. He spends most of his time on the road, researching and looking for stories that deserve to be captured on camera.

His work shows the impact technology and industrialization is having on the environment, as well as the risks posed by over-exploiting the land.

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Marcos Zegers
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Marcos Zegers

We are constantly surrounded by stories. You just have to walk down the street with your camera (wearing a mask!) to find them.

Everything can serve as inspiration for a documentary series if you are out there looking for it.

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If you want to learn more about documentary photography, sign up to Marcos’ course, Documentary Photography Projects, and learn to plan your next project.

English version by @eloiseedgington.

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