Education as a means to expanding your documentary photography.

Courses in documentary photography in the UK. Information about working as a documentary photographer. 

Documentary photograph from published and exhibited project. Image by David Cross.

Learn how to start your journey into documentary photography. Our new three part guides give modern examples of how to begin, work through and present your documentary photographs to a wider audience.  

How to start a Documentary Photography project. Part 1.

Here are a few examples of key things to consider when setting out to find and start a social documentary photography project.
The world is full of stories, they are all around you, learning to recognise firstly the potential for visual storytelling and then the intrinsic value in the final work is a process that takes time and practice. I imply here that there is a value in the story, of course all stories are worth recording and may be considered valuable, by someone, but their importance in the great scheme of things is often debatable. If you are looking to be published in mainstream media, then you will find that the topic has to be on point, you will also notice that there is very little in the mainstream that that devotes space to the work you are about to embark upon. However, for our purposes and not to appear elitist we will take the view that all stories are worth recording and what is important initially and certainly going forward if one is concerned with integrity, is that the stories and unfolding events should idealistically resonate with you so as to demand by inner voice and unspoken conscience that you get to the epicentre of what is going on and record with the head, heart and eye in perfect balance. The work of documentary photographer requires an unfaltering sense of honesty in what you are doing and the way in which the images will be perceived. One must look and look again to be absolutely certain of what is in and outside of the viewfinder and your research should be deep enough to allow you to write an article based on facts and history. Soon your photographic eye and processing brain will match in speed allowing you to see the truth in small moments of clarity. Practice, practice.

I forget who but someone once said, “You do not have to travel far to see more than you can handle”.
There is a lot of truth in that. You do not have to travel the world for a documentary project, (although you can collaborate with others to produce such works from the ecological comfort of your desktop and sofa). More than likely there is an interesting social documentary project waiting for you to share it with the world, just around the corner of where you are reading this. Anything that involves people, as groups or individuals has potential. Think widely. Look at photobooks, what images stick with you? Why do they? Is there a latent memory that needs shaking out? If you have a connection to a picture, there may well be something in your life that is similar in some way or someone else’s life perhaps. There is nothing wrong with starting with that which is close to hand. I have worked on several documentary projects, all were exhibited, one was even published by The Independent and none involved travelling beyond 20 miles from my home. And there is more work to do. If you want more then fine, go travel, broaden your world view but be sure to remain true to the initial motives of honesty and integrity. A Dr. of Philosophy once told me that we start with Emotions, these lead to Ideas and eventually after much human thinking, Actions.
An emotive response to something is not a bad starting point, indeed, it maybe a very good one.
Consider these emotions and see where they lead you, with enough thought a plan can be made.
With a plan all that is left is the pure action, the making of the photographs.

Key points to starting a documentary photography project.

A response in you that causes you to want to make photographs of the story/events/etc. This must go beyond the potential aesthetic value and lean strongly towards that of “concerned” photographer.

Research. You really need to know as much as possible about the scenarios you are about to enter into and the possible events that have led up to the situation as it is when you arrive.

Turning up blind is tricky but a brilliant test of character and talent, though in some cases this is impossible. A process of formal introduction can lead to a more relaxed experience but in any case, if you are dealing with people, you will soon know if you are being accepted or not. How you deal with this is a test of your character and determination.

Contact the people involved. Ask questions. Be open and honest and be sure to have a valid argument for what you’re trying to do. This means you will have to formulate a concept that others can understand.

Having arrived, be sure to be free of preconceived notions, always keeping an open mind. The fundamentals of a documentary story can sometimes take you by surprise, what is implied over the telephone isn’t always the way things are.

What is often overlooked is the absolute requirement for you to be fully conversant with your equipment and to be prepared for equipment failure. The key moments will more than likely be fleeting so knowing how your camera will record a scene for a given setting is vital.

Consider the subject, you have a responsibility to them and the viewer too, you owe them integrity and also a way in to seeing and reading the images.

Collect quotes and anecdotes along the way, these are important and can help shape the project.

Record the dates and names of places and people.

Make available to the subjects the work so far, if possible. This can help break down barriers but can also lead to some hamming up by certain individuals, just be aware. It might be prudent to keep the photographs to yourself, there is nothing wrong with that but do ask yourself why. Be sure not to cross any exploitative barriers. Find ways to ask permission to make certain images, explain the visual narratives, often people will respond positively.

Be yourself.

How to work through your Documentary Photography project. Part 2.

How to work through your Documentary Photography project. What to photograph?

Having done your research and made a few contacts you’re suddenly there, in the zone and ready to start making photographs. Possibly there is so much happening around you that it can be a little bewildering, likewise, events can unfold over weeks, months or even years. The latter is just as hard to maintain as the former is to begin. This is where your research and sense of feeling comes to the fore. All ways and especially in this era of very personal practice it is ultimately up to you to decide on the images that need to be made. Making the “right” image will define you as much as the “snazzy look” of the photo. A mainstream magazine editor ably assisted by an Art Director will have quite definite ideas as to what they expect to see. This doesn’t mean you are locked into a certain view unless you are working as a propagandist but there will be an element of the formulaic. Take a look at a few magazines that still support high quality editorial and documentary photography, I suggest the National Geographic and the Times Sunday supplement, these are easily found, and the photography is mostly first class. You will notice that the use of certain types of images and the order of presentation is often highly formulaic, indeed this is referred to by some as the “classical approach”. There is nothing wrong with this, it works and by that, I mean the audience can follow along quite easily, we are used to seeing this method and we can make sense of it. Random pictures can throw the audience off the scent but equally can add a whole lot of drama and more importantly, they can introduce or reinforce a theme or specific topic, emotion and or idea, etc. As we know from Part 1, regarding emotions/ideas/actions we can possibly manage the direct response to the image(s) if we can link the original emotion to an idea through the image. Then possibly the viewer will play their part and act as their response; this could be a donation to a charity, going on a protest march or maybe they were left enlightened enough to buy your book! Possibly we can change scenarios for the better.
Going back to the magazine examples, you can see that even with a handful of images a fair amount of the story is represented and displayed visually. With more space one can dive deeper, for example: we see on the page an image of a parent with a child, clearly at a hospital – you can add to this easily by thinking laterally, how did she get there and how will she return. Walking? Look at her feet, her clothes, and the weather. Consider the environment that will be negotiated. How far is the journey? What type of scenes might she pass enroute? All of these things may have images and they will all add depth to the story. Why? Because all of these things make up the context and fabric of her life. Not everything will be a Cgreat photograph, that’s just the way it is. However, there is an opportunity here for what I refer to as the “quiet” photograph to be included. The best way to talk about this is to consider The Americans, by Robert Frank. Without doubt the book has many images that are simply majestic. Let us refer to them as “poster prints”, meaning, they have a dynamic or even solemn look/feel that we can live with as large posters on the wall in our homes. They have transcended their documentary status and… dare I say, they have become Art! For me obvious examples would be the SAVE gas image and the lone car on the roadside, shot at near dark. The book is filled with such images pick a few if you have the book to hand, however, there are many images that are considerably quieter and subdued in appearance. At first, they might seem a little boring and we consider them as say, studies of light and form, and we turn the pages eagerly waiting for the next standout image. On reflection I started to realise that these quieter pictures actually carry considerable weight. They are a resonating background hum that create and endlessly reinforce the general sadness and State of Despair.
So, not every image has to be highly commended in the latest round of pay to play photo competitions, sometimes a photograph has to be made. It’s making and presentation is perhaps, vital to the project. Only you can decide, you are in the driving seat and it’s your head and heart on the line.
You might find that you make a key image on day one. That’s great and for me is often important as I know from that point if there really is a set of images that I can make and be happy with. Occasionally the project is short lived, there may not be enough images for the depth you wanted, maybe access to the key moments isn’t actually allowed, personally I never give up at that point as I will switch to editorial mode and try and cover the event much like a press photographer and at least come away with a few images that would work for a short piece. It’s great practice if nothing else. Ideally your project pans out and depending how you like to go about your photography it is important to check through the images constantly or at least regularly to see what you are making. Are you making the same images repeatedly? Are you really covering the story in a way that can be laid out and talked about in a coherent fashion? Do you have those quiet yet important images(?) maybe they are not needed. Often in our documentary photography we make an image early on in our projects and we cling to them, enthused by how much we like them we assume they will be included in the final selection, but sometimes we have to let those images go and this isn’t always easy. It can feel like a betrayal to our original vision and or emotive first response, it can mean that the following images are clearly going to be different, and this might mean a change in your overall perception of the actual story. Stick with it and follow your instincts as you will develop as a photographer and a new or better story/set of images may develop. These early images can sometimes appear out of place, and this might put them in the random category but as mentioned, they can find a new use in the way that they create noise and infer narrative. In long form projects where you might be dealing with 40 plus images or 100 plus for a book for example, these images can be placed in crucial positions to change the pace or direction. A long view from high over a dessert town can give breathing space and a level of comparison before going back in to the close up portraits, for example of the townsfolk. We will look further at lay out and presentation in Part 3. Along the journey you should print your images, postcard size is enough, lay these out and play with the order. Now remove 3 key images and see what happens. How coherent is the picture board now? Are the remaining images telling a story close to the original idea? Ideally, they should. Now from all of the images, see how few are actually needed to tell the same story, make use of your friends but ensure that they do not become too familiar with the images. Fresh and intelligent eyes are required. Using these simple methods you can look for repetition, and also any lack of continuity. You must also be sure you have the key moments that are crucial to the story. How many images to make and then use is partly a function of how long you want to work it, how realistic that notion is and the final presentation method, which will be best covered in Part 3 as mentioned. In short, done properly it would be possible to select from a body of work 5 or 10 images that can, with the addition of text exchange the same information to the viewer/reader as the original body. That is far from ideal a number for most of us but it’s what the printed media work with.
No one can tell you what to photograph or when, having come even this far it is likely that your senses are well enough tuned to know what to look at. Aligning the subject and the moment so as to deliver a meaning or suggested narrative is the hard part, I split the difference here so as to avoid a telling off by Sontag/Berger apologists.  Composing is a technique as much as anything, a look through any well-known photobook will show you that even the big names have a “look” that they rely/work with. Eventually it becomes intuitive. A combination of knowing the equipment and what certain things look like when photographed and further through practice and looking at why certain photographs “don’t work” the really great are able to convey layers of informative visual syntax.

Thanks for reading.

How to present your Documentary Photography project. Part 3. (Due soon).

In part 3 we will talk about modes of presentation and touch on representation and identity... comng soon.

Falmouth Flexible Online Photography BA (Top up) & MA
London College of Communication MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography 
University of South Wales BA (Hons)
Magnum Photo's has an exceptional but expensive course in all aspects of Documentary Photography
Swansea College of Art Documentary Photography and Visual Activism (BA)
University of Gloucestershire Photojournalism and Documentary Photography BA (Hons)
University of Bolton’s BA (Hons) Photojournalism and Documentary Photography
Cristina Force Professional Service to Photographers.
Coming soon, our own foundation level course in documentary photography.

Learn about photography.       Expand your vision.       Best documentary courses.