To Do

Documentary Integrity and Truth

Being there

How will you operate as a photographer?

Will you ask permission or will you be a fly on the wall,
a ghost who never affects the image? This is a major question relevant to your production ethics.
If you tell people what you’re doing, then they’ll react differently to you; they may be guarded or
wary of how you’ll portray them.

Photographers who lived with the communities they were photographing:

  • Chris Killip with the sea coal gatherers in the North East
    of England
  • Martin Parr with the people of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire.
  • Bruce Davidson has done a similar thing in New York.

This is very different to the approach of Garry Winogrand or Cartier-Bresson, neither of whom interfered or announced their presence. Winogrand operated like a ghost but got quite close to the action to produce his wide-angle views, whereas Cartier-Bresson
remained peripheral, on the edge, trying not to be important to the subject.

This is a big one for the social documentary practitioner. The image has to have integrity – it has to be honest and factual in order to validate it for the viewer as an accurate portrayal. This is arguably where the boundary lies between social documentary and photojournalism where the image has more of an editorial purpose. In photojournalism the choice of photographer and the style of image-making will always have to suit the editorial nature of the publication and this is perhaps a bridge too far for the documentary photographer. Most documentary photographers would have no objection to any magazine or media publishing their documentary images provided that they were published as the photographer intended the viewer to see them, not cropped or enhanced.

Kendall Walton ‘Transparent Pictures’

‘Ambiguities and discontinuities’  Berger & Mohr 1995 p91.


For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man…in spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually, re-presented…’

The Ontology of the Photographic Image 1945


If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.

On the Invention of Photographic Meaning 1997 p454

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