Documentary Tips

According to the dictionary,  ‘documentary’ means ‘based on re-creating an actual event, era, life story, etc., that purports to be factually accurate and contains no fictional elements.

In the 1930s documentary photographs and films were produced with the specific aim to educate the public about poverty, hardship and injustice. Complimented by a move across literature, radio and art to do the same gave the impression that they were simply portraying reliable facts from an impartial.

Not everyone liked this style of photography, Ansel Adams wasn’t a fan and said about it “What you’ve got are not photographers. They’re a bunch of sociologists with cameras.” (cited Marien:2002)

Today the term ‘documentary photography’ photography is used a little more loosely. It isn’t just about hardship and injustice now, but includes any factual story.

In thinking about my documentary project I have found the following pointers and tips.

Define the story

What is the point of what I am doing and what am I trying to say through my photographs? In working with KCFM I simply want to show what happens at a radio station. In a previous job I spent a lot of time planning and booking radio adverts and campaigns, I also booked presenters to appear at events that I was hosting. It just looked like such a fun place to work, with a great atmosphere which was the complete opposite to the pressurised environment of my own place of work.

I didn’t really know how things worked at a radio station so when the opportunity arose to photograph with KCFM I jumped at the chance.

Research the topic and other photographers

I have spent some time talking with the staff at KCFM talking about what they do and how things operate. I was surprised at how much work each of the presenters has to do apart from planning and presenting their own programmes.

I have looked at some other documentary photographers that you can find elsewhere on this blog.

I’ve also looked at some other photographs of radio stations in order to get some inspiration for my own work.

Finally, I have also discussed with the staff at KCFM whether there are any restrictions or permissions I need to have in order to take the photographs that I want. So long as I liaise with my contact at the radio station everything should be fine. I won’t be photographing a feature that they run called ‘small talk’ as we have not been able to get permission from the school where the recordings would be held. Other photos will be taken in public where it is polite but not legally necessary for me to ask permission to photograph anyone.


I aim to try to get a range of photographs, some of which are of details and some of which include the bigger picture.

I aim to try to represent reality and not let pre-conceived ideas get in the way of the photographs.

Be Prepared

To appear professional I need to know my camera and lenses very well and ensure that everything is not only in good working order but that I have with me all the equipment I need. I mostly plan to use my 18-200mm lens that will allow me to take both close up and wide angle photographs without the need to keep swapping lenses.

I need to be prepared to try new things, to think on my feet and to quickly make adjustments to my plans if situations change.


It is better to be patient and take time to spot and frame my photos rather than to rush about and take lots of snaps.

It is also good to take time and talk to those that are being photographed. As I have photographed the staff at KCFM I have learned about how the station operates and at the same time achieved shots of the presenters at their most relaxed. All of the staff have been very generous with their time, explaining to me what all the buttons are for, who does what and even how the software works and I have taken a genuine interest in it all.

Post Production

I need to decide how I want the finished photographs to look. As it is a documentary style I don’t plan to do a lot of post production work to my images. However I will need to remove or obscure any sensitive or business information that I have photographed on the walls or computer screens. I plan to do this in Lightroom and or Photoshop.

I currently plan to leave all my images in colour rather than black and white because I will be taking photos of Christmas lights as well as within the station I think they will look better in colour.


On this occasion I plan to include the photographs in a self published book. I haven’t decided whether I will use captions or not yet or whether I will use some headings in the book to give it some structure.

Photographic Truth Claim

Considering my Truth Assignment and trying to find the truth in an object I have looked at some other photographers to find their opinion.

It appears that as photography has gone digital and it has become so much easier to manipulate images critique of what the truth is has caused many critics to question the truthfulness and honesty of digital photographs.

In his paper What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs Tom Gunning claims that traditional methods of photography are more truthful. That they are more honest and a closer reflection of reality than modern methods. He appears to believe that light affecting chemicals on paper is somehow less open to manipulation than digital data about about light.

Gunning also talks about a photograph’s indexicality and how closely a photograph resembles the person or object that it represents.

Susan Sontag suggests that the possibility of a truthful photograph is what drives us to try to convert our experiences into images, to immortalise and ‘make real what one is experiencing’. She says this is particularly relevant when it comes to world travel.

Sontag also talks about bureaucratic cataloguing and how we perceive certain photographs to hold more truthful information than others, for example passport photographs and driving licences which allow authorities to monitor and record our movements and activities.

However, Sontag also highlights an issue with repeatedly capturing and viewing ‘reality’ in images which can make the image appear to be less real. Particularly with regard to images of war and atrocity, she says it makes the “horrible seem ordinary – making it appear familiar, remote… inevitable”

Thinking along the same lines is Jean Baudrillard who claims that the more time we reproduced or duplicate an object the less real the object becomes, creating a kind of indifference to the object and eventual ‘extinction of the original’.

Baudrillard goes on to suggest that truth and reality are illusions, that illusions reign and that we should respect illusions and appearance and give up the illusory quest for truth and reality.

Roland Barthes on the other hand, in Photographic Truth and Evidence claims that photographing humans makes them less real and truthful. He says “Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’, I instantaneously make another body for myself, transform myself in advance into an image”.

Charles Sanderson Pierce talks about photographs being signs that are either icons, symbols or indices. He says that they are indices because through the mechanical process of using a camera images are forced to correspond point by point to nature.

Sturken and Cartwright though suggest that this is questionable in the book Visual Culture and Public Policy:Towards a Visual Policy by Victor Bekkers and Rebecca Moody. Simply because cameras are seen as tools and something that is neutral doesn’t mean that the image taken is an exact replica of reality. Thy say it is an analogy of reality and question its use as forensic evidence.

They say that images are a version of reality determined by the decisions and assumptions made by the photographer including lighting, lens, aperture, shutter speed and camera angle used. They point out that as well as the photographer’s influence, the viewer also has an interpretation of the truth created from his own perspective, values and principles. In addition the viewer can’t always consider the context that the photo was taken in because they may not know it.

Personally I think I side with Sturken and Cartwright. I’m not sure that any photograph can tell the complete and honest truth without influence or bias on the part of the photographer and the viewer. I know that several photographers can look at the same scene or object and each will take a different picture, each will be showing the truth in their own way.

The set of images below, taken by John Hillard illustrate how one photographer saw one scene in four different ways. Each photograph has been cropped to suggest different ways that the person died. If all of the images are overlapped with the body in the middle it gives a much more honest representation showing that all four causes of death could be possible.

Causes of Death, John Hillard Circa 1970


And then there is the influence created by post production processes. These two images are from the same photograph, used on two different publications, but looking very different and giving a very different interpretation of what is going on.

OJ Simpson

To conclude, I think that the still life photograph I took a few days of an egg cup shows some truth. It shows the shape, texture and style of the egg cup but the way it has been lit, the angle the photo has been taken from and the camera settings used have all been decided by me and my preferences. My purpose in creating this photo was to seek the truth and show the real egg cup but as Baudrillard says perhaps the truth and reality really really are illusions.


I think that Lewis Hine put it best when he spoke to the National Child Labor Committee in 1909. He believed that photographs were a symbol of reality, not reality, and he warned that “unbounded faith in the integrity of photographs is often rudely shaken,” because “while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.” (cited in Marien 2002, p234).

Nadav Kander

Nadav Kander was born in Israel, grew up in South Africa and now lives and works in England. He has a wide body of work and appears to be best known for his documentary photographs and portraits.

I was interested to read that in his portraits, Kander takes a different approach to Rankin and doesn’t usually speak very much to his subjects. In a recent Telegraph interview he said that while other photographers want to show their model as relaxed and happy he would rather explore other aspects to their character and would rather that they weren’t too comfortable in front of the camera.

Boris Johnson, Nadav Kander

In the same article he talks about spending up to three hours getting the lighting just right and this really pays off as I think the lighting in his portraits is stunning. In this portrait he has clearly concentrated on highlighting Boris’ distinctive mop of hair.

I also like this idea of a composite of 15 shots, showing all sides of Boris.

Boris Johnson Composite Nadav Kander

For another publication Kander photographed Prince Charles. In the accompanying interview he says that his research is less about reading what is written about or by his subject and more about simply looking at images of them and thinking about how he would like to see that person.

He is looking for the moment when a picture becomes a portrait and he is not looking for the truth in a person.

Prince Charles, Nadav Kander

Kander’s project, Obama’s People marked President Obama’s inauguration and catalogued his administration at the time. About this Kander says that “by omitting the context of time and place from these photographs, the smallest details are heightened.”

Obama’s People, Nadav Kander

Kander has produced some haunting photographs for his Dust documentary. It is a project that captures images of secret Soviet cities and missile test sites on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia.

What strikes me about these images is that the colour tone is similar to much of his portrait work. He clearly knows what colours he likes, is drawn to a particular type of light and has developed a clear style.

It took Kander three years to photograph his Dust collection. Although the light is very subtle in these images I am not drawn to them because they are beautiful. I like the composition but it is also a bit disturbing and post apocolyptic to see the rust, decay and crumbling concrete.

The Aral Sea I (Officer’s Housing), Kazakhstan 2011

This is a short video of Kander  talking about his approach to photography and his Road to 2012 project that was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery.

I particularly like Kander’s comment that he always thinks more about the viewer than he does about the sitter.