Why documentary photography is an important method of recording history, sharing emotional truth, and often inspiring change.

“Tank Man” by Jeff Widener, 1989

Why take photographs? What is it that makes a photograph so very different from a painting, a sculpture, or a poem?

There are several answers to this question. One that is primarily important is this: the photograph documents reality in an instant, using light and time to reproduce a moment, as it is perceived. This is what makes photography one of the most important methods of documentation of people, events, and feelings, both historically and in the present day, expressed an online photography portal learnmyshot few years ago.

Looking back, documentary photography has made waves of impact as a method of truth-telling in difficult times, a way of exposing disturbing scenes to raise awareness of things like poverty and famine, to ultimately reshape the public’s opinion on government policies that were often the direct cause.

“V-J Day, Times Square,” or “The Kiss” by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945

Documentary photography proves that pictures can change the world. For example, photos revealing the death and destruction caused by U.S. presence in Vietnam resulted in America’s withdrawal from the war. The key to this is not in the telling, but the showing. Photographers were able to capture the emotion and trauma of suffering humanity, and inspire viewers to create change. The communication of emotion visually is valuable and strong, even in singular glimpses.

Granted, documentary photography does not always depict loss and despair. Realism, context, and timing are key roles that documentary photographers must always consider. Does the photograph truly represent its subject? How is this photograph a symbol of a larger issues, feelings, or events? Why is this moment significant?

For example, this photograph of Tiananmen Square by Jeff Widener in 1989 (cover photo), in which one man stands in protest in front of government tanks, revived a belief in courage and represents the notion that a small figure can make change. By this logic, the documentary photographer could be compared to the man in the photograph, as he too has created extraordinary impact with one act – in this case, the iconic photograph.

‘Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper’ By Charles C. Ebbets, 1932
Vulture Stalking a Child by Kevin Carter, 1993
“And babies” by Ronald L. Haeberle, 1968

Styles of documentary photography vary, as well. For example, wedding or event photography is a documentation, as photographers take pictures candidly to capture the moments that make the event special, and provide a thorough and beautiful overview through a series that represents the event as a whole. Likewise, sports can be documented through action shots that capture the movement of the game. Food photography as well can be a documentation, especially when capturing pictures of the preparation, during which the food is revealed via its most important aspect: its creator, the chef.

In modern times, documentary photography is still extremely important. Photojournalism as a profession has become increasingly difficult to maintain, due to the rise in iphone photography and layoffs sparked by changing demands for media. Nonetheless, it is as crucial as ever to document life in real time and share true and moving stories with the world.

Some people believe that as a photographer, it is your responsibility to document the places, events, and people you come across in life that you feel are important, beautiful, or special. It’s a compelling belief, and may just be true. History happens, and with it, memories, but photographers alone are able to capture it in frames.