The highs and lows of documentary photography

I’m sure every photographer knows this feeling, but today I hate my work. Yesterday I may have liked it, but it doesn’t matter much because today I hate it.

As the summer has progressed I’ve felt like I’ve been riding an emotional elevator when it comes to dealing with our prison project.

Some days I’m proud of the work I see hanging on our walls from the prison and other days I hate every single image up there. I guess it also boils down to the idea of feeling a lot of pressure to make sure we don’t let anyone down with this project.

The simple fact is this is the most time I’ve ever spent working on a project and probably the most time I’ll ever spend on a project non-stop like this. Short of moving into the prison, which Jenn and I actually thought of doing. We have lived and breathed this project daily and sometimes with “toxic” results to our sanity. Time off is a wonderful and needed thing.

The warden retires in less than a week and I want nothing more than this piece to be a thoughtful thank you to a man that has instilled in us so much faith and confidence. For us to walk freely inside an institution like this and doing it with cameras tells you the level of trust and confidence this man has in us. The staff, inmates, and frankly sometimes I find it amazing.

Now with only days left in the prison I’m hopeful that in six months, a year, ten years, or however long it takes us to produce this piece that it will all be worth it. Not for our sake cause it’s already been worth it, but for the sake of everyone who has made this summer possible.

People visting our home might find it a little strange to find our walls
cluttered with photos from our project, but it serves as a nice way to know
what we’ve shoot and what we still need to work on. This is our project road map
from much earlier in the summer.

What is Documentary Photography?

The first question I asked when trying to define documentary photography was what is the difference between documentary photography and photography in its broadest term? Aren’t all photographs visually documenting something? Aren’t all photographs visual explorations and visual expressions? Other than commercial, when does a photograph begin to fit into the documentary category?

Documentary in its broadest terms is to use documents as evidence. Ok. So starting from that point, documentary photography would then be using visual documents as evidence. Right? Perhaps we could say it is visually presenting the facts of a person, place or event…..facts???? or portions of facts? Perhaps it is the intent of a documentary photographer to record some aspects of reality. Perhaps it is the intent behind the photography that defines one as documentary.

According to film theorist Paul Rotha, “Documentary defines not subject or style, but approach. It justifies the use of every known technical artifice to gain its effect on the spectator.”

It this definition given by Rotha that resounds most with me – one that addresses the intent and approach of documentary photography. With that said, documentary photography has many purposes: to record, reveal or preserve, to persuade or promote, to analyze or interrogate and to express.

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