Dream Job: Documentary Photographer

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What is Documentary Photography?

Documentary Photography is a form of photography that refers to the photos taken to document events or environments that are significant and relevant to both historical events and present day.

Within documentary photography, there are various categories that coexist with this, including combat photography, social documentary photography and photojournalism. Documentary photography stimulates public opinion and gives opportunity for debate throughout the public.

A combat photographer is someone who takes pictures in war zones to document the severity of these events. Also referred to as war photographers, combat photographers face danger every second they are out doing their job. But while they are in danger, they are also helping spread knowledge of current events.

“There is a job to be done,” said James Nachtwey. “To record the truth. I want to wake people up.”

A social documentary photographer is someone who records how the world looks, both with a social and environmental focus. Social documentary photographers aim to draw attention to social issues happening around the world. Social documentary photographers also can refer to photography dedicated to showing the lives of underprivileged and/or disadvantaged people and other social groups. Social documentary photography looks to open people’s eyes to social issues throughout the world, such as homelessness, poverty, child neglect, etc.

“I was 20 when I discovered war and photography. I can’t say I wanted to bear witness and change the world. I had no moral reasons,” said Luc Delahaye. “I just loved adventure, and I found there was a kind of grace weaving between the bullets.”

A photojournalist is someone who tells a story through the medium of photography as their main way of telling these stories. Photojournalists capture a visual representation with their camera, instead of using words to tell them as a journalist would. Photojournalists create images that are used to contribute towards stories covered by the media. Their images deliver news in a format that is both creative and informative.

“Photojournalism is documentary photography with a purpose,” said W. Eugene Smith.

How Do You Become a Documentary Photographer?

Documentary photographers often travel to take their pictures, whether it be for a personal collection or a news feature. Not only are documentary photographers in charge of taking pictures of events, they are also in charge of editing, developing and preparing to publish their pictures. Some documentary photographers are freelance, while others are employed by newsrooms or a magazine.

Those interested in becoming a documentary photographer can pursue a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications, photography or photojournalism. Within their photography courses and journalism courses, they should learn the different terms of photography (such as aperture, exposure, depth of field, etc.), news editing, visual editing, news design, and various other courses.

After finishing school, or even while in school, people who are interested in a career in documentary photography should take the time to participate in an internship with a newspaper, magazine or other news agency. Having an internship shows potential employers that you are able to perform the basic duties of a photojournalist or documentary photographer. Along with learning sets of skills you can apply to future assignments, you get the opportunity to learn about the industry and get connections that may help you in the future. Having an internship gives you the opportunity to get experience in your field and build up your resume.

Along with an internship, you should build up your portfolio. Your portfolio should consist of your best and most newsworthy work. Your portfolio should not only include the work you have done at your internship but all previous experience you have as well.

Why Do I Want to Become a Documentary Photographer?

Since I was in high school, I have always been interested in journalism, more specifically photojournalism. Having a father who is a photojournalist probably helped spike my interest in this. When I started taking pictures, I loved capturing moments that people could look back at later on. Originally, I enjoyed taking pictures for fun, but now I want to use these skills to help spread truth to people. After I’m done with college, I want to get a job for either a magazine or news station and travel to write articles and take pictures.

I’ve always had an interest in showing people what really happens in places like Syria, Afghanistan or even in America. The truth behind current events can be hidden. I have always felt as though we, the people, don’t get the full extent and truth of what happens in the world. News of previous events come out in the open every day. I want to become a truth bearer. Photos have an influence on people in a way nothing else can. Photos can’t lie, they don’t bend the truth. Without pictures and videos, I would never know the full extent of what happens throughout the world.

By becoming a documentary photographer, it gives me the chance to show the truth, it gives me a chance to travel with a purpose, it gives me chances to meet people I would have never met any other way.  Documentary photography gives people a voice, some who otherwise would never be able to have a voice.

Seeing pictures others have taken, such as war photographer James Nachtwey, helped me want to record events that will help tell stories of those who cannot tell their story any other way. Documentary photography helps record history, they can change the course of history, they can create change throughout the world.

“The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I am benefiting from someone else’s tragedy,” said James Nachtwey. “This idea haunts me. It is something I have to reckon with every day because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition I will have sold my soul. The stakes are simply too high for me to believe otherwise.”

Photographers go to extremes to get the perfect image to describe to people what is going on, even if it puts their life on the line. There is always a story that needs to be told, all it needs is to have someone share it. Within documentary photography, it gives the world a moment to see through the eyes of the photographer.