The dangers of “creative documentary photography”

Yesterday, the photojournalism community raised eyebrows when World Press Photo – a mainstay of the industry – announced the creation of a new contest that “would have no rules limiting how images are produced.” The competition would allow staged and manipulated images – dubbed “creative documentary photography” – to support contemporary storytelling.

On the one hand, it is scandalous. It is more than a question of semantics to reappropriate the meaning of “journalism” and “documentary”. Lives have literally been lost in the pursuit of the ideals espoused by these words.

But let’s take a step back and recognize that the competition still doesn’t have a name and that “creative documentary photography” is, perhaps, a working title for an unfinished product.

In cinema and literature, the creative license has been exercised for decades. “Historical fiction” and “based on a true story” are compact and effective ways of telling stories. They may sound like the truth, but that doesn’t mean their effectiveness as storytelling devices is diminished.


The 2016 Oscar winner for Best Picture, “Spotlight”, is a perfect example. While the writers and director took artistic liberties in telling the true story of the Diocese of Boston sex scandal, the end result provided both gripping entertainment and heightened awareness of a notorious issue that has tormented the Catholic Church for decades (and by the way, has had the support of current journalists including Marty Baron, now editor of the Washington post).

Of course, the film was not presented as a documentary, but audiences are familiar with this form of storytelling and are sophisticated enough to recognize its limitations. In other words, they visually master the genre. They may not know precisely what is historically correct and what is not, but the director’s vision and end goal can be achieved nonetheless.

Strangely, we don’t really have such a vocabulary in photography. We have ‘the editorial’ and the ‘staged narrative’, but neither of those forms is used in a way that the film / literature counterpart might be – at least not with respect to the documentary community (insert here McCurry’s sarcastic joke).

Documentary photographers are a group of enthusiasts. They work incredibly hard, often for a pittance, to cover topics that are important to them. They sometimes use photo contests to draw attention to issues that are unknown or ignored by the public, and treasure the increased exposure that victory can offer. There is no effective storytelling without an audience.

You may remember the viral video “Kony 2012” which garnered over 100 million views and raised awareness of a virtually unknown warlord, Joseph Kony, who terrorized swathes of Congo and the Central African Republic. The video has been criticized for its inaccuracies and oversimplifying the issues, but from a storytelling perspective, it was a massive success that led to military intervention.

When it was released, I spoke at an Illinois Press Photographers Association event and rhetorically asked why hadn’t a photojournalist created such a viral sensation? Are we so locked in by convention that we are fooled by other creative endeavors? Many ethical (and moral) discussions will no doubt emerge from the discussion, but that’s a good thing.

Time will tell if World Press Photo can successfully navigate and perpetuate “creative documentary photography”. I hope they rethink the name, but I also hope photographers consider the rapidly changing landscape of storytelling and how this experience can prove to be invaluable to the industry.

About the Author: Allen Murabayashi is the president and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. Allen is a graduate of Yale University and uses dental floss every day. This article was also published here.

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