Documentary Photography: An Unrealized Ambition

Man with birds. Roma.

I hate when people ask me if I’m a photographer.

Sometimes it’s the gear that prompts this. They see the expensive looking camera, or maybe pick up my kit for a moment and are taken aback by how heavy it is. “Whoa! You must be a photographer.” Maybe it’s the final shots that have them whoa-ing, but the gear still takes centre-stage: “You’re camera takes great pictures!”

But no, the reason I hate when people ask me if I’m a photographer is because I’m not sure what to say. On the one hand, I most certainly am. I’ve shot weddings, portraiture, and used my photography as the foundation of several paid graphic design projects. I’ve been paid money to shoot. Simple. But on the other hand, I feel like I’m not really a photographer at all. To date, photography has only been a small part of what I do, and after more than ten years looking through a series of increasingly expensive lenses, I’m still not really doing the kind of photography that has always inspired me the most.

All of my favourite photographers are documentary photographers. The famous black and white street scenes of Henri Cartier-Bresson. The blisteringly visceral war photography of James Nachtwey. The artfully realized wedding work of Jeff Ascough.

Their subjects vary considerably, as well as their styles, but there is a thread of consistency among this type of work that transcends stylistic differences. Unlike fashion photography, most forms of portraiture, and pretty much anything done in a studio, quality documentary work is basically true, at least from the photographer’s point of view. They don’t have the luxury or inclination to ask their subjects to turn a bit to the left, or take a few steps back or find a more flattering angle. Their raw material is only what’s there at a given moment; the light as the camera can record it. Their medium is the world itself.

Every artist has the power to manipulate their audience, and documentary photographers are no different. But compared to a painter who can create whole worlds with the strokes of his brush, or a sculptor who can destroy with the driving bite of her chisel, the documentary photographer’s tool box is much more restricted. His only means of manipulating the final image is to choose what to include in or exclude from the frame; what to focus on, what sort of mood to imbue through lighting, composition, focal length. And while the simplest of these tools can still be very powerful means of manipulation, they do not carry the god-like creative potential of other mediums. Some might think this to be a limitation, but for me it has always been photography’s greatest strength. Art is about interpreting the world around us; recording what we see, sharing how we feel. Documentary photography does this in the most literal way possible. To me, this is the main attraction of the photographic medium, and the ideal I have always aspired to in my own style.

I certainly can’t claim to be a photographer on the same level as those mentioned above. More than anyone, I am aware of just how far my work falls short of where I’d like it to be, and this is why I struggle with the dreaded question. But I am a photographer, and although I am not where I want to be in terms of development or recognition, I am proud of how far I’ve come. One of my biggest goals during our travels is to challenge myself photographically, to think in terms of projects not just individual shots, and to push myself outside of my own comfort levels while behind the camera. Street photography is one way to do this, but it’s not the only way.

I am a photographer; one who is becoming surer and surer that this work is and will continue to be a large part of my professional life.

Man with bandage. Istanbul.
Woman on cell phone. Roma.
Mother and daughter. Istanbul.
Walking man. Roma.
Three ladies. Roma.
Street performer. London.
Busy street at sunset. Roma.
Young tour guide. Tloss, Turkey.
Commuter. Istanbul.
Man on bike. Lanciano.
Teenage couple. Roma.
Young woman. Roma.
Couple kissing. Roma.
Man on ferry. Istanbul.


8 responses to “Documentary Photography: An Unrealized Ambition”

  1. awesome site very good|loving this site|very interesting stuff

  2. Thanks for your write-up. Another point is that just being a photographer will involve not only problems in capturing award-winning photographs but in addition hardships in getting the best photographic camera suited to your requirements and most especially issues in maintaining the standard of your camera. It is very accurate and visible for those photography fans that are into capturing the nature’s exciting scenes : the mountains, the actual forests, the particular wild and the seas. Visiting these adventurous places unquestionably requires a video camera that can surpass the wild’s hard settings.

  3. Christine Campbel Avatar
    Christine Campbel

    You’re a fantastic photographer! I’m always amazed at how you can capture people without them knowing you’re taking their photo. It’s little snapshots of other people’s lives… I like it. Can’t wait to see more!

  4. Your camera sure takes good photos there, Nachtwey!

  5. daniel fleming Avatar
    daniel fleming

    great shots Chris. I’m really enjoying the blog that you and Laura are producing.

    keep it up and i look forward to your future adventures.

  6. You are a photographer. The fact that you’ve been paid for it (even once) makes you a professional photographer.

    When I got my first professional writing gig I was shocked to learn that the real writers with whom I was suddenly working felt themselves to be just as much frauds as I did.

    It’s possible that you’ve not yet mastered the technical aspects to allow you to achieve what you intend every time. But from what I’ve seen your photos are quite good anyway. We the audience aren’t aware that the images you take haven’t always lived up to your own expectations.

    Something else to consider is that Cartier-Bresson et al took many photographs that the public never saw.

    I think its in the nature of creativity… The only artists I’ve seen possessed of pure 100% absolute confidence 24/7 are almost always hacks not artists. Certainly many talented artists have moments when they feel the glorious moment when they are in harmony with their muse, but those moments are fleeting. For the rest of the time, most artists are assailed by self doubt.

    Being a talented artist does not mean getting it right every time. One of my favorite filmmakers, Terry Gilliam, gets it wrong more than right. Yet his talent and even genius is palpable.

    I think you are a good photographer, and of the images you’ve presented in this post, my favorites are:

    – the London busker: I love the precariousness of the image in much the same way I love the discordancy of Alanis Morisette’s “Uninvited” – and Couple Kissing in Roma: because you’ve caught the casual photographer coming up the hill you’ve transformed it from an image to a story. Nice synchronicity.

    Your ambition is more realized than you think.

    1. @Laurel: Thanks for the thoughtful response Laurel.

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