Window on the World: Defining Documentary Photography


Undocumented Immigrants crossing the Rio Grande River near Laredo, Texas.(D. Dunleavy, 1985, for the San Antonio Express-News).










“The world just does not fit conveniently into the format of a 35mm frame.” — W. Eugene Smith


Documentary photography differs from photojournalism in its primary objective. While photojournalists seek out one salient or decisive moment to capture, the documentarian produces multiple images to tell a richer and more complex story – one that explains and explores the human condition, social issues and events. The documentarian hopes to explain and explore things to themselves and others. Moreover, The documentarian tries to convince others of a particular truth: a truth seen and felt — a truth that motivates to act upon and toward something beyond our own reality. In documentary work, the photographer typically builds long-lasting relationships with individuals and communities that gives substance to personal experience Often a documentary photographer will spend weeks or even years on a project while a photojournalist reports on events with a single image. That’s the job. Strongly defined within the realm of news and information, photojournalism derives power from both art as well as social science. Photojournalism is not only concerned with the technical and aesthetic aspects of an image, but more importantly it is predicated on content or storytelling.

The Visual narrative is a way of telling a story that is often perceived as has a  cause and an effect.  Further, the narrative attempts to make visible  an issue or idea –  one that is bound to experience with something, someone, or someplace. In addition, the visual  narrative is stronger when it shows the viewer that something means something to someone rather than telling the viewer what that something means. Further,  Documentary photography is an approach or style that is a straightforward form of visual reportage.

Jenn Market observes, “documentary photography is an important method of recording history, sharing emotional truth, and often inspiring change.”

Documentary photography  “follows a single topic or story in-depth over time, as opposed to photojournalism’s real-time coverage of breaking news and events. By deepening our understanding and emotional connection to stories of injustice, documentary photography can capture and sustain public attention, and mobilize people around pressing social and human rights issues.”



Explore the work of   two or photographers from the list below. Compare and contrast the following for each photographer: (1) Motivation, (2) Style, (3) Impact on society).


Jacob Riis

Lewis Hine

Paul Strand

Walker Evans

Dorothea Lange

Mary Ellen Mark

Steve McCurry

Hiroji Kubota

Sabastio Salgado

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Martin Parr

Andres Kertez

Eugene Richards

Leonard Freed




Watch on  the Web

 Jacob Riis

How the Other Half Lives

Cotton Mill Girl: Behind Lewis Hine’s Photograph 

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper: The Story Behind The 1932 Photo


Additional Reading

Early Documentary Photography.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.  (October 2004)