The terms document and documentary derives from Latin meaning teach. If there is an exemplary characteristic that defines documentary it would be simply show the world to itself. Philosophically, photography was first associated with the “positivist” school of thought, a 19th movement which posited how in observing the “natural human experience” we could gain understanding the nature of reality which distinguishes us as spiritual beings. We have since accepted that this approach was incorrectly presented in the notion of objectivity.
Lewis Balitz observes, “There is something paradoxical in the way that documentary photographs interact with our notions of reality. To function as documents at all they must first perusade us that they describe their subject accurately and objectively; in fact, their first task is to convince their audience that they are truly documents, that the photogrpher has fully excerised his [her] power of observation and decription and has set aside his [her] imaginings and prejudices” (Dennis Grady, 1977).
Despite seeming objective, “a picture is worth a thousand words or the “camera never lies,” photography, documentary or otherwise, is a very subjective. The photographer intentionally attempts point the lens toward things that matter to them – this is what is perceived as reality. All photographs are documentary in some sense, but they are also works of fiction. The photograph is the result of what the photographer sees in their mind’s eye — a synthesis of visual codes or the fleeting “perfect picture” moment representing the idea that is America, the idea that is religion, the idea that is war, or the idea that is nature.
While the fine arts photographer is allowed the freedom to create meaning through artistic expression conceptually, the documentarian is constrained by the experience of observance of physical reality.
In doing documentary work, the photographer looks at life holistically – a narrative from birth to death. As a storyteller, the photographer does not attempt to find answers in a single picture but a continuous flow of moments in life.