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Photojournalism & Documentary--What's the difference?

Arond A. , Jul 05, 2004; 04:35 a.m.

I was watching a taped program, Egg, on PBS today. The episode featured a photographer, Joseph Rodriguez, who described himself as documentary photographer. The segment focused on his work with former gang members who were trying to reform their lives. It also covered his work with young adults in youth correctional facilities in California. Come to think of it, there was a featured essay by him in the May issue of Sun Magazine.

Getting to the point... The program featured his style of photographing, which consisted--at least in part--of actively engaging his subjects to get just the right shot. There was nothing subtle about it. 'Turn your head a little to the left, now down... that's great.' 'Now stick your finger out so the baby can grab hold of it... wonderful.' This all struck me as very odd since he described himself as a documentary photographer. It begs the question: What's allowed in a photographic discipline that claims some greater adherence to reality & objectivity than other forms of photography with no such claim (e.g., corporate advertising).

I understand that photojournalists who want to be taken seriously within their profession must at least put up the appearance of being 'objective.' Therefore, it's assumed a photographer won't stage manage a shot. I recall an incident a fews years ago where a photographer won a top prize for a photo he took of a firefighter dipping his helmet into a pool with Malibu in flames in the background. It later came to light that he had, directly or indirectly, suggested his subject do something he might not have done otherwise. In other words, he intervened in the shot. The photog had his reward rescinded as a result.

My question is: Are so-called documentary photographers held to a different standard than their phojo colleagues? To what degree is a documentary photographer a photojournalist? What's the difference, anyway? Where do people like Joseph Rodriguez fit in? How common is his technique? Is it still regarded as legitimate documentary work? Legitimate photojournalism? When, if ever, is intervention acceptable?

I confess that after having seen the program, I can't look at Rodriguez's work the same way. I don't trust what I'm seeing. I underwent similar disillusionment when I learned that a favorite photograph by Bruce Davidson was staged (small girl levitating in front of cemetery).

I'm genuinely curious what others think about this. And I don't meant to provoke another tired discussion about objectivity in photography. (Yes, everyone knows no one can be _truly_ objective...) Rather, there is a difference between discriminating between moments and stepping into the moment to arrange a shot.

What do you think.


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Edward H , Jul 05, 2004; 04:57 a.m.

I work at a newspaper myself so I consider myself a photojournalist.

The difference, to me, is that the documentary photographer interacts with its subjects. Asking them questions and such. Rodriguez behavior, on the other hand, kinda stinks of studio photography. A person filming a documentary will interact with the subjects, asking them questions and this and that. Etc.

The photojournalist, like us newspaper folk, don't say anything. The best thing for a newspaper person to do is to not exist. At most I can imagine the photographer smiling to show that s/he is human and to make the subjects feel a bit more secure. Something like that.

I keep thinking about a WONDERFUL documentary, "War Photographer", about James Nachtwey. He, at most, shook the subject's hand and then started/continued shooting.

B B , Jul 05, 2004; 05:59 a.m.

There seems to be an element of the polemical in the best documentary work by its very nature, whereas journalism is supposed to simply capture events objectively. That's the big picture difference; when you start looking at it broken down, it's easy for the difference to become obscured. A photojournalist might go out and shoot pictures of a fire, for example, and move on to something else: the fire itself is his or her subject, and he or she isn't particularly interested in making a point. A documentarian, on the other hand, would shoot the fire with the intent of making a point: fire fighting is dangerous work; smoking in bed is stupid; arsonists follow similar patterns; or burning buildings sure can look pretty. Even though the pictures the journalist and the documentarian took might be identical, the uses the pictures would be put to are not. A documentarian would also tend to string events together in a series (this is how they make their point); journalists react to events and seldom have a given focus. Journalists can and do make documentaries of sorts; the features you might see in your Sunday newspaper are a kind of documentary, for example. Documentarians, on the other hand, almost never step away from what they do, although they obviously employ the tools of journalism in their craft. This is a broad brush. Now that I'm thinking about it, I wonder where someone like Don Pennebaker would fit in. He made documentaries of the rock music scene in the 60s that were seldom overtly polemical in nature. Perhaps the line between documentary and journalism is becoming more defined in these polarized times... Anyway, if I had to sum it up in a phrase, a journalist finds the story and lets that story tell itself as much as possible; a documentarian is more active in telling the story, and isn't above helping it move in the direction he or she wishes when necessary.

Constance Cook , Jul 05, 2004; 08:20 a.m.


I just finished reading Eyewitness. This book goes through 150 years of photographs. Most are photojournalists but many drifted into documentary work as well. It's a good read about some well-known photographers and gives a decent short history of how it works. It seems to be available at most libraries. Conni

Buddhadev Mukherjee , Jul 05, 2004; 10:07 a.m.


Where would you place the National Geographic photographers -- Cobb, McCurry, Harvey, Stanfield, Abell -- to just name a few? Is their work documentary, or do they perform photojournalism? Best regards,

-- dev.

Neal Shields , Jul 05, 2004; 11:17 a.m.

Journalism has an agenda.

Bill Mitchell , Jul 05, 2004; 04:05 p.m.

What's the difference?

Easy: Photojournalism is intended for other people, Documentary is for one's self.

Jeff Spirer , Jul 05, 2004; 04:40 p.m.

Journalism has an agenda.

The implication of this is that documentary photography doesn't, which is dead wrong. In the definitive text on documentary photography, William Stott's Documentary Expression and Thirties America, Stott details the origins and continuing evolution of documentary photography, making it clear that there is always an agenda, even "an axe to grind" (his term), in documentary work.

By contrast, photojournalism often refers to what might otherwise be called "reportage," which frequently requires the photographer to shoot everything and have it edited by someone else, which hardly gives the photographer the ability to work to an "agenda."

I highly recommend that anyone wanting to get beyond the most simplistic surface view of documentary photography take the time to read Stott's book.

boris chan , Jul 06, 2004; 02:53 a.m.

"Joseph Rodriguez........How common is his technique?"

Intervention/staging is, sadly, really common in photojournalism/documentary.

"Is it still regarded as legitimate documentary work?"

I don't think it should be, but there appears to be a growing acceptance that it's legitimate. Things seem to be coming full circle regarding staging - it was commonplace in the early days, it grew to be frowned upon, but right now it seems to be mainstream again. Not so long ago I provided a link to the work of Rodriguez along with that of Donna Decesare (www.donnadecesare.com) in a now deleted thread on LA gang culture, but without making any comment on whether I thought the work was good or bad. Both Rodriguez and Decesare have been awarded Mother Jones bursaries for "documentary photography", so judging panels (and normally MJ have reasonably smart people on those panels) evidently consider their work to be legitimate. It's worth taking a look at the picture of the child on Decesare's opening page of her site, does it look staged? Obviously I wasn't there but it certainly doesn't look natural to me. More recently, in this years World Press Photo awards there have been allegations that one of the winning pictures (of a supposed couple getting married in China while wearing masks during the SARS epidemic) was staged - as of now WPP have declined to make a statement as to their position on this. Brian Walski, the guy who was fired from the LA Times for faking (via photoshop) an image in Iraq, would have every right to be wondering what exactly his crime was in view of the seemingly ever more elastic concept of what's legitimate in documentary/photojournalistic work.

Leslie Cheung , Jul 06, 2004; 05:29 a.m.

Imo there's no difference except perhaps photojournalism deals more with current events.

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