The essence of documentary photography

More and more of our stories are told through visual media than ever before. We’ve each become documentarians of modern life – its tragedies and its triumphs – showcasing the context of our daily lives and decisions via Instagram or Snapchat.

When we take time to understand the stories behind these moments and objects and people, we empower a single frame to show us the world. Image via Kenny Morrison.

However, simply capturing moments can’t be described as documentary photography. There’s something more than a snapped second that goes into creating a richly woven narrative. The iconic documentary photographer Ansel Adams said it best:

The dismal half-baked images of the average “reportage” and “documentary” photography are self damning… the slick manner, the slightly obscure significance, the esoteric fear of simple beauty for its own sake – I am deeply concerned with these manifestations of decay. Gene Smith’s work validates my most vigorous convictions that if the documentary photographs is to be truly effective it must contain elements of art, intensity, fine craft and spirituality. All these his work contains and we may turn to his work with gratitude, appreciation and great respect.

Though W. Eugene Smith may be renowned as a ground-breaking American photojournalist, his works for LIFE and TIME transcended “average reportage.” Whether he was documenting the life of a simple country doctor or the treacherous days of World War II soldiers, he revealed more than data in his photographs, more than generic moments. He revealed the heart and soul of those moments; he captured the context within which we can form judgments about those stories.

Smith’s documentary photographs still elicit emotions as varied as the viewers. Whether it’s outrage over the polluted living conditions of Minimata, Japan or it’s delight at the rarely seen after-hours of a mid-century jazz club, Smith’s imagery were both art and essay, emotion and reason.

In the modern era, when we feel pressed to snap a photo of each dish that we’re served or each outfit that we wear, it’s easy to forget the purpose of documenting lives. It’s not merely to collect images. It’s to weave a story – to create a narrative that reveals answers but also provokes questions and second thoughts.

During a 1956 interview with American Society of Media Photographers president Philippe Halsmann, Smith said, “I don’t think a picture for the sake of a picture is justified — only when you consider the purpose.” This sentiment lies at the heart of the photographer’s profound images. The sense of purpose is tangible, forcing viewers to either relate to or reject the photographer’s understanding of the situation.

When we remove our meals and our outfits, our tragedies and our triumphs from their proper context, we lose the power of documentary photography. When we take time to understand the stories behind these moments and objects and people, we empower a single frame to show us the world.