Can Documentary Photography Ever Be Entirely Value Free?

13th September 2013

Before I answer this question I think I need to establish the difference between Documentary Photography and Social Documentary Photography because they are separate cultures.  I’ve taken my definitions from Wikipedia.

Documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle significant and historical events.  It is typically covered in professional photojournalism, or real life reportage, but it may also be an amateur, artistic, or academic pursuit. The photographer attempts to produce truthful, objective, and usually candid photography of a particular subject, most often pictures of people.

Social documentary photography is the recording of humans in their natural condition with a camera.  Often it also refers to a socially critical genre of photography dedicated to showing the life of underprivileged or disadvantaged people.

If the definitions are accepted, the former doesn’t necessarily require any value, personal or otherwise, to be associated with it, whereas the latter would be difficult to engage in without some form of value system either going into the project or being attained whilst capturing the images needed for the project.

Social Documentary inherently needs to play on the emotional aspect of the scenes it portrays to make the final viewer of the images react in some way, positive or negative, and to support whatever the initiative is that lead to the images being made in the first place. Documentary Photography on the other hand is simply making a visual record of an event which doesn’t necessarily have any emotional connotation to it, for instance, a Presidential Inauguration.  To the participants and the represented party maybe there is emotional attachment, but to someone say from overseas these scenes probably hold no value on any level other than purely an event that requires recording.  On the other hand, if a christening, wedding, birthday etc is being chronicled, then there would normally be some value associated with this act if the person is related to any of the individuals concerned, and maybe if a professional is performing the recording they too need to have some value attached to bring out the best in them for their clients sake.

It therefore depends a great deal on the situation as to whether or not a value system has any bearing on the documentation.   The individual or organisation that commissions the work will also have an influence on the value(s) associated with the work and their ability to convey that value system to the photographer.  In my own opinion the best work of a photographer will be generated when they have a value system that empathises with the work they are undertaking and will show in the final results.

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