Jul 11, 2012

Thoughts on Photojournalism & Documentary Photography

Congratulations to the Winner of last week’s contest, Rubén Chase!

 Make sure you email us at [email protected] telling us what Phlearn PRO you would like for your prize!

Thoughts on Photojournalism & Documentary Photography

By: Jenna Petrone

“Every photographer who has been involved in these stories has been affected. You become changed forever. Nobody does this kind of work to make themselves feel good. It is very hard to continue.” – James Nachtwey.

When I first started doing photography during my freshman year of college, I had no idea what I was doing, what different types of photography there are, the technical aspect of it all, and I had no knowledge of it’s history whatsoever.

As I mentioned in last week’s article, when I first started photography I focused a lot on people and their interactions with the environments they were in.  I wasn’t really focusing on any specific type of photography, I just photographed what I was interested in and it wasn’t until I finished my final project for my Photo 2 class, that I realized the images I’ve been taking all year had a documentary quality to them.

During my junior year of college, I took two classes that really helped shape my view and interest with documentary photography and photojournalism : “On Assignment: Location and Documentary Photography” & “Large Format Photography & Fine Printing.”

One day in my “On Assignment” class, my professor showed the class a movie called “The Bang Bang Club” and it completely changed the way I viewed photojournalism and documentary photography.  If you haven’t seen that movie, I strongly recommend it.  “The Bang Bang Club” is based on the true stories of four combat photographers, Greg Marinovich, Kevin Carter, João Silva, and Ken Oosterbroek, who captured the events going on in South Africa between 1990 and 1994.  It really opens the viewer’s eyes to the world of photojournalism and the moral decisions behind it.

That same semester, I was also taking a class called “Commitment and Choice” that focused on everyday issues and the ethics behind them and then applying them to situations we encounter.  Watching “The Bang Bang Club” while keeping the ideas that I learned from “Commitment and Choice” in mind really helped me figure out where I stand when it comes to documentary photography and photojournalism and the morality behind it.

When I finished watching the movie, several questions came to mind: Is it worth it? Being a photojournalist, it is worth having haunting memories of the people you photograph to get money, recognition, and the fame you get from photographing them?  Is it worth not helping the people you photograph just to get a good image?

Photojournalism is how human existence is documented, how we learn form past mistakes, and how we learn about history in general.  However, I think that in order to be a photojournalist, one needs to accept the fact that they will be making immoral decisions for a story and to make ends meet.  They have to have a certain mindset so that they can be able to take photographs without being emotionally attached.  Once they have reached that state of mind, they have the ability to become fearless war photographers who tell stories though their eyes to share with the rest of the world.

For example, one of the photographers from the Bang Bang Club, Kevin Carter, was faced with pain, suffering, and people dying whenever he would photograph in South Africa.  For years, he has been able to produce successful images documenting the war in South Africa while facing these terrible things every day.  He found ways to cope, as many other war photographers in South Africa did, by smoking marijuana as a relaxent.  One day while documenting the famine in South Africa, Kevin took this photo of a starving girl with a vulture in the Background that made people question his moral decisions as a photojouralist.

This picture seemed like the trigger that brought Kevin into a darker place than he was before and it was the picture that became an iconic image of Africa’s anguish.  Despite the fact that Kevin won the Pulitzer Prize for the photo of the girl and the vulture, hundreds of people questioned him and wondered what happened to the girl in the photo.  Kevin didn’t have an answer to this question, he didn’t know what happened to the girl because he took the picture from a Distance then left the scene.  Around the same time, Kevin started doing heavier drugs and went into a state of depression that drove him to his suicide.  Kevin become haunted by what he has witnessed by being a war photographer, this quote of his was found in a suicide note: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain, of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…” (Time.comText-align: left;”>).

Stories like Kevin Carter’s blow my mind.  I guess I just wasn’t prepared for the effects of war photography on photographers and how being in combat situations can really mess with their minds.  After doing an immense amount of research and immersing myself into the world of photojournalism and documentary photography, I have gained so much more respect for it.  I can’t imagine what all these photographers go through each day to cover their stories and to get that one shot, but I can read their thoughts that they choose to share and see the amazing images they are able to produce.

Another photographer who stands out to me in the photojournalism world is James Nachtwey.  James is known and respected for his “fearless and poignant images of wars, conflicts, and social upheaval” (Biography.comText-align: left;”>).  What I like most about James’s images is that they are RAW and honest, even though they are hard to look at. They are the type of images that make you stop, think, and make the audience more aware of what goes on in the rest of the world.

There isn’t much to say about these images because you simply have to look at them and see the stories for yourself.  Each of them can have a different impact on the viewers, it’s just how you decide to interpret the image and what effect it has on you.

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Align: left;”>So why do people do it?  Why do people risk their lives and witness suffering to capture stories though a lens?  In the article, “The Inner Life of Wartime Photographers,” by Bill Keller, he stated that, “They do it for the most mundane of reasons (to feed their families and the most idealistic (to make the world pay attention) and the most visceral (it is exhilarating; it is fun) and somewhat existential.”  Obviously, Leller states some important reasons photojournalists do what they do.  It’s important to get the story of what’s going on in the world to the rest of the world.  What’s a better way to share what’s going on in the world than by taking pictures of it? It only makes sense.

What are your thoughts on photojournalism and documentary photography? Do you think its immoral for photographers to document other peoples lives and not help them if they are in need or do you think getting the word out to the rest of the world is important?  I would love to hear what you have to say, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jenna’s Results:

Last November, I challenged myself to work with people like I never had before for a documentary project I did for my “Large Format” class.  I went out with my large format camera, a lighting kit, and one idea in mind to capture all of my subjects in their natural state of being.

For this project, I asked each one of my subjects the same question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, and while they were answering me, I took their portrait with them feeling completely comfortable in front of the camera.  I recorded each of their answers and put them on display with each photo so the audience can see what kind of person each one of my subjects is.   In the end, I was very happy with my results and it’s a project that I’m proud of, which is kind of a big deal for me.

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Kate’s Results:

I grew up in Palo Alto, California, close to Stanford University, and just south of San Francisco. Even though I’ve done my fair share of traveling and seeing the world, I still consider Palo Alto to be the best place on Earth. It’s a great college town:  diverse, intellectual, caring, active, and fun.  When it was time to head down to college, I was sad to leave Palo Alto.  Even though I remained in the same great state of California, I was going to be at least five hours away. So, before I left for college, I decided to document some of the many (awesome) residents of my home town. I went downtown with my assistant (who also goes by the name of “mom”), and set up shop. I was influenced by the great Richard Avedon, and wanted to capture the pure essence of my subjects, so I kept things simple, using only a clean white backdrop, and just one Light source.
At first it was a difficult; I was rejected by the first five people who walked by, ignoring my offer of a free portrait. Finally, a man playing in an outdoor band next door took pity on me, and he was my first victim – er – client.  After that, the ice was broken, and people actually started waiting in line to get their portrait taken – what an exciting change of events! I worked all day and took over 100 different portraits, before my assistant informed me that it was dinnertime, so I had better close up shop.  I hope you enjoy these portraits of my fellow Palo Altans.
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Angela’s Results:

A self portrait taken in the hospital.

I started photography by an accident. Yes, I’ve always had a digital camera beating around in my purse to take those silly “here are me and my friends photos”. Yes I was one of those obnoxious kids who would go out to McDonalds with my friends and come home with 100 (or more) photographs. But I wouldn’t consider that “interested in photography”. It was kind of just a habit or a hobby of mine, to take photos of everything. Of the things I did, the food I ate, the people I was with, the places I went, everything. Then one day I was diagnosed with cancer, and on that day (just like every other one) my newly owned DSLR (Nikon D60) was beating around in my purse. So I then took out my camera and did what I did every other day of my life. I started taking photos. I took shots of the machines that surrounded me, the doctors, the needles, everything. Just like I did every other day. When would I consider myself “interested” in photography? Maybe I have been interested in photography my whole life, but that interest was from more of a playful point of view. I was only interested in photography as something to do as my career since October of 2009 (when I was diagnosed cancer free).

Before this, my photography was in it’s purest form documentary. I documented everything everyday all the time. I would not edit what I had taken, I would share it. I first started sharing my photos on Flickr when I was diagnosed with cancer. These are quite obviously (to me) the only photos I could share with the Phlearn phamily in regards to Jenna’s article on documentary photography. Documentary photography is powerful stuff, and if I can pull out a bit of emotion with these photographs — whether it’s a smile, a laugh, sadness, or if it even makes you stop and think for a while, then my job has been done. I have decided to share 4 photos with the phamily, and if you’re interested to look at the rest of the set you can do so HERE.

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Your Challenge:

This week’s challenge is very open. You can submit any documentary/photojournalism image, or a whole photo story you would like in the comments below.  If you are comfortable with sharing, we would love to hear the stories behind your images too!  You don’t have to go out and shoot a whole story for this week’s challenge, you can submit an old favorite image of yours or show us something completely new, it’s up to you! Please have all entries in by Wednesday July 18th at 12PM CST. The Winner(s) will get their choice of a Phlearn PRO!  Good luck!


  • Must be a documentary/photojournalism image.
  • To be eligible to a win a free Phlearn PRO, entrants must share the contest on either Twitter or Facebook using the buttons directly to the left.
  • Entries must be submitted by Wednesday July 18th at 12PM CST.


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    Stefano Tealdi

    Last year I’ve been in Congo. In general I have to say they are all cordial people, the only problem is that they are not so pleased to be photographed.. this because of a general rule of the place which denies to shoot people, at maximum asking them for permission and sometimes giving them some money.. this fact reduced a lot the number of photos I would have done to the people, but in general I had success to make some shots.
    The photos I show to you is about a “Sapeur”, i.e. a person that, despite the poverty, dresses always in an elegant and eccentric way. You can see Sapeurs along the roads, perhaps with mud, dressed like they’are going to a ceremony.
    The day of my arrival at Pointe Noire the case wants there was a meeting of the Sapeurs of the city, and my brother and his wife had the wonderful idea to bring me there.. what a fantastic people! Notice the cigar which they use, still in the cellophan not to ruin it for the next exhibition!

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    This is a photo I took on Oct. 16, 2011 when I visited New York to find out on my own about Occupy Wall St.  I never thought I was the most political person in the world.  In fact, I honestly never thought my opinion and influence in our government was that strong to begin with.  However, I found myself more and more engrossed about what was happening so close to my home.  So I packed some light gear and caught a trip to New York on the 15th.  When I emerged from the subway, I found myself in the middle of thousands and thousands of people covering the sidewalks of Time Square.  Before I could even pull my camera out, things became tense and a friend and myself fled down a few blocks to escape an early detainment.  Through police sirens, chanting and busy city ambience, I gained first hand experience of the similar situation my parents probably went through during their era of protests.  My night ended at Liberty Plaza where we spent the night.  

    The next morning, I had a chance to do a more personal investigation and talk to the people there.  I gained more insight about the troubles and issues facing us today than I prepared for, so I decided to share this part of the experience, rather than chaotic environment I was in that previous night.  This park captivated me the most and this is where I took the bulk of my pictures.  It was a little hard to pick just one.  I chose this because I feel that it captures the moment of being shoulder to shoulder with so many different people as well as forces you to look into the center of the frame to the sign, asking “Are You Occupied?”  I also like wondering what the group of people in the lower right hand corner of the frame were talking about.

    Needless to say, I find myself having a more confident voice and influence in our politics today more than I ever have before.  Thanks, and I hope you like!

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    Hedtler Tanya

    In school I documented a farm that was neglected by it’s owner. I first took pictures from the outside of the fence, then I got more interested and started exploring. I was horrified at what I was seeing, animals in rusted cages, no food, no water, sick, and bug infested. I called the MSPCA who I was uncertain would help me. I think they might have done all they could. One thing I did though which I’ll never regret is take one of the baby rabbits at first and took care of her and her injury. The second thing I don’t regret was my return to take three more and bring them to a shelter. I’m sorry for sharing so many but my passion was to save these animals and have people be aware of the effects of neglect. I’m still not sure how people can treat animals and people in such horrible ways.

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    Gabi Brown

    http:[email protected]/7448939494/in/photostream

    I have a lot of documentary photography, and do a lot of photojournalism. I can’t even remember when I became intrigued by photojournalism, but out of all of the types of photography I’ve tried, it’s most definitely my favorite.
    This is a photo from a dance recital that I shot. I felt that it portrayed such a descriptive story and emotion. For some reason, this is one of my favorite photographs and I ended up putting it in my portfolio. 

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    Rob Rice

    I travelled to Colombia, South America earlier this year on a 10-day road trip photography workshop, and it was amazing for so may reasons. First of all, Columbia very is beautiful, and so are the people. Even with not knowing the language, you can tell that everyone is very friendly and welcoming. 

    We mostly drove through the coffee region of Colombia, from Medellin down to Armenia and back, stopping at various big and small towns (and a gold mine) along the way. Children were ecstatic to play with whatever they had available to them (sticks and tires instead of iPods and gameboys), while most adults were struggling to make a living and provide for their family.

    It was definitely a humbling experience, and I can’t wait to go back.

    Feel free to check out my blog to view tons more photos –

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    Rob Rice

    I travelled to Colombia, South America earlier this year on a 10-day road trip photography workshop, and it was amazing for so may reasons. First of all, Columbia very is beautiful, and so are the people. Even with not knowing the language, you can tell that everyone is very friendly and welcoming. 

    We mostly drove through the coffee region of Colombia, from Medellin down to Armenia and back, stopping at various big and small towns (and a gold mine) along the way. Children were ecstatic to play with whatever they had available to them (sticks and tires instead of iPods and gameboys), while most adults were struggling to make a living and provide for their family.

    It was definitely a humbling experience, and I can’t wait to go back.

    Feel free to check out my blog to view tons more photos –

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    Erika Edgerley

    I don’t really do a lot of documentary photography, but, as an aspiring filmmaker, I spend a lot of time on film sets, so I’ve taken a lot of set photos to document my experiences. This one is one of my favorites. My class had the opportunity to shoot on one of Sony’s stages a few years ago, with their new 3D rig. This was during our test shoot. We’re gearing up to shoot, just waiting for the director, Ryan Coogler, to finish giving the actors notes (remember his name, you’ll be hearing it again if you follow movies at all!) I love this shot because it really captures everything going on behind the scenes.

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    Brian Maiorino

    Earlier this year I had the opportunity to photograph the President of the United States.  He came to give a speech on energy in the US and picked one of the oil fields that I work outside of Maljamar, NM.    It was quite an ordeal parking at one site, getting bussed to where the speech was to be held, and going through security. Those guys out in the sand dunes? Yeah, they were secret service snipers!

    Political differences aside, it was pretty cool to get to shake the hand of the President of the United States.

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    Lauri Laukkanen

    My last minute entry: “Nordic Wisdom”

    The man in this photo is my grandfather. He is 89 years young and loves painting and music. He is a self-taught painter and he has gained some reputation with his paintings during his retirement years. He also loves composing music on his piano – both the words and the melody. As if that wasn’t enough, he also is in the process of writing his own autobiography. 

    Born in 1923, he took part in the battles of World War II here in Finland against the Russians. Now thinking back on it, the situation is pretty funny (as funny as a war can get…), as my great-grandfather (from my mother’s side) is from russia and fought in the same war, against the finns. 

    Just imagine the scene – both my grandfather and great-grandfather pointing each other with guns and saying: “Let’s not kill each other, in 40 years time we will be close relatives and have the same grandchildren.” 🙂

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      Lauri Laukkanen

      For some reason the photo didn’t attach on the first time… Here’s an other try: “Nordic Wisdom”

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      Lauri Laukkanen

      I don’t understand… Why won’t it upload my photo? 🙂 Well.. I uploaded the photo to flickr, so you can check it out there:

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    Hi. Sorry, I just needed to clarify a glaring error in your article regarding Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer award winning photograph. It was taken in Sudan and not South Africa, at the time Sudan was having a massive famine. Sudan and South Africa are two distinctly different countries and in fact quite far away from each other, even though yes they’re on the same continent. As all the members of the Bang Bang Club are/were South African I can understand how that detail got confused, but if you’re writing about important photography history it would be good to check facts before publishing.