Creative: Why I Love Documentary Photography


Me looking slightly out of place. Photo AK.

This photograph is several years old now. I came across it while searching for something else. “You will live in one year what the average person lives in ten,” an older, wiser photographer once said to me. It’s true. Yes, things are VERY different now from when I started my career, back in the 1990ish timeframe, and the respect level for people with cameras has faded to almost undetectable,(lots of suspicion and skepticism) but living the photographic life can still be so damn good and so damn interesting. The camera is the excuse. It takes you places, opens doors and can also get you in serious trouble. Especially now when the idea of infringing on rights is second nature here in the good old Land of the Free.(I’ve had issues with police, ATF, Border Patrol and Sheriff’s Department.They make up the rules as they go.)

I think this photograph represents what being a photographer is about. Late sun in your eyes, mayhem around you, but at the center is the quiet eye of the storm. This area of calm is comprised of your experience, your training, your studies and your practice. Until you are in touch with all these things you are almost useless in a spot like this. This doesn’t mean you don’t go, that is after all how you gain the much needed experience, but one day things begin to make sense and you suddenly have visual style and fact to back up your need or desire to be there. You have visual proof of your purpose.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a long-time friend and legendary photographer. We both admitted that we have moved on, so-to-speak, from photography because we had different goals now. I’d rather bike, hike, fish, climb, explore, write, to yoga, play guitar, than make images, and I often complain about not having the time, but the real issue is just that I’d rather be doing other things. My friend and I also joked about living through another age of photography, an age where I used to get paid $1500 per RAW conversion and where my average editorial assignment was multi-day. I look around now and think “I want no part of this.”

But I still carry a camera, love making snapshots and two-minute portraits for my interview series. Documentary photography still lives in my body and mind but it’s no longer the top of the pyramid. If photography IS your top of the pyramid then embrace it, enjoy it and be the best possible photographer you can be. Photography can illuminate a path you would never be able see any other way. I know many people have put the truth of their life on hold to play the online game of “being known,” or being an “influencer,” but this is a short term play. Documentary photography improves with time, ages beautifully and is often not fully realized until decades later, so understand that great work takes time and is influenced by things beyond your control.

Be patient. Forget about everything else and be true to the people in your images. Now go shoot.

18 Comments on “Creative: Why I Love Documentary Photography”

    1. Thanks Andrew,

      It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and a pleasure seeing and hearing about your adventures. Keep it up! You are building a serious archive.

  1. A really good read, I like this post muchly.

    I think photography was one of the primary reasons I went nomad even if I did not quite realise it at the time, 7.5 years ago. But I think the idea of being able to experience and document my travels made it doubly appealing, I am not sure I would have made the decision without photography as a tool in my bag. So it has taken me around the world for 8 years now, the archive of my truly mediocre work is now huge but hey, gotta get 1-2 keepers every year!

    1. FBJ,
      Most of us are “C” students. Doesn’t sound like much but being a “C” student will not only get you through college, and the degree process, but it will also get you a steady, mind-numbing job that will crush your soul and commitment to live.

  2. I love documentary photography and photojournalism. I couldn’t do it for a living, it’s always for myself. Just small-time stuff, but the human condition exists everywhere, so it can’t be small-time stuff, can it?
    I agree that people are more suspicious now, probably due to social media etc., and I’ve just made a ‘What are you doing and why do you do it’ Blurb magazine for such occasions. The irony is that no-one bothers about people taking photographs with phones.
    I remember reading some time ago that in France, it is against the law to take someone’s photo without their permission. How this affects taking photographs without intruding on events, I don’t know. Long-term essays should have less of a problem with this I suppose.
    I don’t think you have moved on from photography, Daniel, you are just ‘on a break’. Everything else is just making you a more rounded photographer. Just getting you ready for South America – on your own terms – (and on your own dime).

    1. Mike,
      You are a wishful thinker. I like that. If I hit S. America again I will probably have a camera with but not likely I’ll be full court press photography. But, any trip is a good trip. As for France, yes, and it’s only going to get worse. France, Germany, Canada, all have laws about photography in public places. And if you have any commercial application then forget it. Even if photography is small, doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful. If it impacts you it’s worth doing.

  3. Daniel, if you hit South America again there is no doubt that you will carry a camera. You won’t be working as in the old days; those days have gone, but it will be work and, if you so decide, you could get the work published, but I imagine, like myself, it would primarily be for yourself.
    I’ve recently been watching the first few episodes of Master of Photographer on Sky Arts and one piece of advice given to contestants was to shoot for yourself, don’t shoot what you think the judges will like. As in Sky Arts, so in life: shoot for yourself, if others like it, great, if not, so be it.
    The great thing about photographing the human condition is that you don’t have to go anywhere else to do so. People are people wherever they are. One person’s exotic place is just home to someone else. It’s the story, the human interaction, that counts. Understanding this is very empowering.

    1. Mike,
      Not only can I not even imagine what it must be like to get published today, I can’t imagine why I would want to. The only way I want to publish is via my own publications. The magazine world died decades ago, for the most part. I do know of several very high-end editorial photographers how are incredible image makers, but also have been doing editorial for decades and have quite a network. I also know tons and tons more who are signing horrible contracts and getting paid peanuts. Not for me. Even the idea of judging photography makes me somewhat ill. Most contests are revenue streams for the host, little more. I’m too selfish to be a photographer now. I’m happy making the work, putting it away and moving on. It’s a shadow.

  4. Dan, I have only recently just discovered your work.

    Absolutely inspiring, not just your incredible body of work, but also your words and thoughts on the subject of documentary photography.

    I’m a fashion/portrait photographer – 10 years or so. I have loved my fashion photography career, but always knew in the back of my mind, it’s not what initially drew me to photography. I have always been desperate to tell stories, to capture life, or at least humbly attempt.

    For years I’ve wanted to make the leap into full-time documentary photography, a move I finally made just weeks ago, so I’m at the start of what I know will be an incredibly exciting and fulfilling journey – lots to learn. A lot of what you says resonates with me. As a fashion photographer, social media, Instagram, followers and the like has all taken center stage. I try not to judge, only to realize I have no care for it, or need.

    It’s been scary and exciting making the leap, I’m currently planning doc projects and researching ideas, can’t wait to get out into the field.

    As a father and husband, I would love to try and further understand the business end of docu photography. What are the possible revenue streams? Books, exhibitions? Any thoughts or comments on that would be greatly appreciated.

    If you have ever doubted for one second whether the work and words you create matter, don’t, they matter a great deal and reach a great amount of people, myself for one.

    Cheers, Buki.

    1. Hey Buki,

      Wow, nice to hear from you and congratulations on your move to documentary life. Well, my thoughts on this are probably not what you might expect. In short the biz end of documentary photography, from what I can tell, isn’t great. Too many people with cameras doing subpar work that is then over promoted. Image fatigue, short attention span, small budgets, limited time etc. You are up against it all. But here’s the thing. You have to be more than a photographer now. You have to be a well rounded human first and foremost and a photographer second. In fact, I’m not even sure I would use the label “photographer.” I would angle more towards being a creative person who can offer solutions to a client’s needs, whatever they may be. If that requires photography then so be it. If not then you use whatever means are required. I would think about teaming up with other creatives who fill in the holes you may or may not be good at. I would also look at commercial and advertising clients as they remain the only real revenue options. The magazine world can’t support anyone now unless you are one of the truly rare creatures with a contract or staff position. You MUST blaze your own trail. You MUST be unique. You MUST make your own work. I would also be patient but not complacent. The goal is to have clients chase you, not the other way around. The industry is too fickle, to enamored with tech, too lazy and too conforming. Be more. Be smart. Be original.

  5. I would never imagine you going down the traditional publishing route, Daniel. Alternative publishing, like you have (successfully) been advocating here, definitely.

    1. Mike,
      If the opportunity was right I would consider it. Trad publishers do some remarkable things but not sure I have anything that fits the model. I’m happy on the fringe.

  6. CCCCHHHHUUURRRCCCHHH!!!!!!

    I’ve always loved candid/street photography. Lately, I’ve been yearning for more with my photography moving from random single frames to more cohesive storytelling.

    I just discovered your work/blog and glad I did, seems to be just the creative boost I need.

    Cheers.

    1. Hey Tracy,
      I’m actually going to build a photography site soon. Haven’t had the need in years but suddenly find myself needing one….

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