Observation and investigation for documentary photography


If the intention behind a photograph is to produce something photographic, weighted by aesthetic merit or artistic expression, then this is your observation through the camera that you will most likely share in this image.

If the intention is more explanatory or educational, if there is an agenda or a message behind your work, then an investigation will be necessary at some point, even if it leads to an observational result. Some of the best work in observational photography has been done by street photographers, but these don’t necessarily tell a story so much as they act as prompts that the viewer can use to tell a story.

I don’t want to do that, I want to actively TELL the story! I think this objective requires an approach based on investigation.

Within the practice of documentary photography, my goal is to produce photographic essays, long and short, containing a story or narrative of some sort, something with a beginning, middle, conclusion, resolution, arc of character, an exploration of a place, or a situation.

The individual photographs work like jigsaw pieces for me to put together in a sequence on printed pages, and only a few individual images stand out to deserve their own individual printed medium. Observation offers something on the surface, but it is through active investigation that the best documentary observations can emerge; peel back layers until insight is revealed.

Working on these stories requires a hands-on research and research process, which means that I take the time to learn the potential of a situation, but will ultimately shape the final project around my own experiences once I am entered the field through practice. to research; in other words, learning by doing, seeing, hearing and, at best, producing insight based on lived experience rather than relying on a foundation of prejudiced concepts.

If you spend a lot of time before working on a story learning precisely what’s going to happen, laying out plans for your project before entering the field, via other people’s accounts and other people’s research people, then your resulting photographs will only be used to illustrate existing ideas. Your project may be a large set of photographs to decorate that secondary research you started by reading, but it won’t offer much new on the subject. You won’t surprise yourself, and you won’t surprise anyone who already knows the subject.

It’s like basing a vacation on a tour guide. You have reached all of the named locations, but these are only locations that someone else has liked and recommended. You don’t discover anything new for yourself, even something that everyone already knew – to me that doesn’t seem satisfying even though it might be to some. I would rather see all of these same sites but stumble upon them myself as a result of exploring rather than because someone else told me where to go.

Of course, both methods still have the potential for the unexpected, but one offers a homecoming story with very little deviation from the guidebook it was based on, and the other offers a unique journey. , with all kinds of small errors and deviations, even if the destinations end up being identical.

I don’t want to tell someone else’s story. I don’t want to lock myself into a set of rails and miss out on photo opportunities like a safari. For me, photography as a means of researching practice works best when conducted as primary research. Go out into the world, find your own problems based on that experience to solve. Studying places, meeting people, asking your own questions based on your own insight and experience, and organically emerging images from this exploration offers a great chance that these images will be surprising, fresh and a new contribution to this story.

It’s very unlikely that two people will have identical experiences in this way, and even if they did somehow, their interpretation through the lens would be very distinct.

Allowing non-rigidity and the space to improvise is essential, even in a mapped, carefully researched and planned project. If you only photograph what you can imagine based on secondary research, you are bound by the limits of your imagination and someone else’s experience. It’s not worth discovering: some of my best photographs show things that I could never have imagined and put in place and are rather things that I observed in the moment.

I usually start a project based on something that interested me, something that I want to delve into and produce a visual record. I can come up with a set of questions that I want to try to answer, but as I search for those answers, I will always find development in new directions and more threads to untangle.

If you start shooting and think you already have all the answers, what do you really want to accomplish with the images? You will be blind to the possibilities, the photographs will have no chance of being anything other than the sum of what you already know, and will not take into account the element of chance that comes from all the things you don’t know .

I think bringing my curiosity to a situation rather than generating it lends itself to an audience of people wanting to resolve their own curiosity, rather than seeking out prompts with no real resolution. Ask questions, leave with answers.

I want to sate my audience’s curiosity vicariously, to see through my eyes how I questioned a situation, to see the details I offer as resolution, not to open up questions I don’t. never intend to answer. Sure, a good photo can ask a question, but a well-sequenced story can also answer that question, and those images can exist together as a whole, fulfilling whole.

Of course, the implementation of each of these ideas will depend on the nature of the story you are telling, the type of storyteller you are, the type of audience you are trying to communicate with, and many other factors.

If I were to take photographs with the aim of demonstrating a road infrastructure problem for the local council, I would take a very different research approach beforehand than if I wanted to document a community’s struggle with austerity measures .

For one of them, getting to know places, incidents, etc. will give a very clear map of where I’m shooting and what, with some leeway for further exploration, but it would mostly be a geographical-only journey.

For the other, I would like to be fully open to places and situations that I could never imagine or discover through secondary research. I would need to go anywhere that would take me to shoot the threads of this community. Manifestations of social issues in a way that I can already think of would result in images based on bias, having made up my mind before departure.

In order to accomplish discovery rather than creativity, curiosity must be a driving influence. Open up to the world and then direct sightings as you explore, but still revisited with that original open mind to see if anything has been overlooked, if only for the sake of anyone who wants to pick up where you decide you are done.


About the Author: Simon King is an English photographer and photojournalist, currently working on long-form documentary projects. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, New output groupand on Instagram.

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