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Thoughts on Photojournalism & Documentary Photography

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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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