A SOCIAL DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER

PETER OFFERS AN UNIQUE

AND UNUSUAL PERSPECTIVE ON OUR TURBULENT TIMES.

There is something quite unique about covering a protest march. I’ve done it a good few times, and the emotions are always the same. Most of the marches in Durban end at the City Hall, so one always arrives in that area about a half an hour before the march does. By this time, the streets are blocked off, and for the big marches, like this one, shops close. There is always that weird and eerie silence in the air; no traffic and very few people as office workers scurry inside just in case it turns ugly. It’s like that dead calm just before a big storm, a city in near silence. In the distance, down the street, you can just see the marchers but you can’t really hear more than a vague and deep droning noise.

In front of them, the blue lights flashing of numerous police vehicles. As they get closer you can hear the loudspeakers of the march leaders calling slogans and waiting for the people to reply, in one voice. Then the police vehicles dash up the street towards you, sirens on full blast and blue lights everywhere as they scan the approach for any kind of difficulty. It’s here! Then the first wave arrives, ordered together by the marshals in a box-like formation, chanting in a rhythmic way that you can only really experience in Africa. It’s alluring and inviting, and for a moment you forget you have a camera in your hand and you almost want to allow yourself to get mesmerised by the sounds and join in.

They come wave after wave, and gather in front of the City Hall in their thousands, to listen to their leaders, and chant. Mostly it’s peaceful and good-natured, sometimes it isn’t…” When I wrote these words on my website, just after covering the protest march of municipal workers who had been on a five-day strike, I was trying to describe some of the experience and emotions of documenting an event. When I tell people I’m a photographer, I’m often asked if I can do weddings. In general, people have the perception that if you take photographs, you are versatile to the point that you can take images of almost anything, from a dramatic lion kill to a fashion shoot for a magazine. In general, I think there are few photographers who can do this. What is generally overlooked, is that photography is a very broad medium and within it, there are numerous specialisations.

If you want to be good at what you do, you have to stick to what you are good at doing. In truth, I’m a shocking wedding photographer, and when friends or family have asked me to help out at a wedding, I must say I’d rather go sky-diving without a parachute. But put me in the centre of a protest march, or ask me to tell the story of a community initiative in schools that breaks down racial barriers, and I’m as happy as Larry. Social documentary photography, as my field of specialization is known, has its popular origins in photographs taken in America in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. The Farm Security Administration hired a number of photographers including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to provide a stream of images to newspapers to highlight the plight of the rural poor. This project paved the way for modern documentary photography.

 

Documentary photography is generally different from straight news reporting. It seeks to tell a story, to document, inform and educate on an issue that is often on the periphery or margins of society. It’s usually not quite the stuff of newspaper headlines, but images that give insight into issues and people that are part of daily life. Perhaps the best-known proponent of this form of reportage was the famous magazine ‘Life’, which over the years published some of the most noteworthy images and photo stories ever taken. Similarly, many of National Geographic’s human interest stories could be considered a blend of documentary and travel photography. Key then, to documentary photography, is that it tells a story through pictures.

As such, single images are usually not regarded as documentary reportage, and almost always the story unfolds as a series of images that can be combined with editorial. Save for providing background information or context, the best documentary stories can stand alone and tell most of the story in the language of photography. The other important aspect of documentary photography is that the photographer becomes immersed in the subject matter. It’s a good idea to spend as much time with the people and issues you are documenting. In so doing, you will ensure the authenticity of what you are doing. When you gain a more complete understanding of the issues and context, this will be reflected in your work. Your images will be all the more natural for having gone through that process, as the people you are photographing will be able to be natural and comfortable around you, and more open in expressing themselves and being un-posed in the things that they do.

It’s also important not to rush in and photograph people as if they were objects or laboratory rats, and this is generally considered exploitative and demeaning. All too often, as in the case of famine and poverty in Darfur, photographers fly in, spend an hour or two on the ground taking a few heartwrenching images, and then the images are published as being true reflections of the story on the ground. Without a deep understanding of the issues involved, so-called quick and dirty reportage is at best incomplete, and at worst, misleading. It is also very important to be scrupulously honest in postproduction with documentary photographs. They are, after all, documents. So, removing people in Photoshop, replacing skies and otherwise altering images is a definite no-no. At most, I improve contrast, tonality and sharpen my images, cropping only if absolutely necessary. One should, as a rule, train the eye to crop during the image making process, rather than afterwards.

While programs like Photoshop have revolutionised photography by placing the power of editing in the hands of photographers rather than photo labs, there are a good number of stories of documentary photographers being exposed for significantly altering images to the point where they become works of pure fiction. You don’t need a huge range of tools to be an outstanding documentary photographer. Often, a huge camera can be quite overpowering and invasive to those you are photographing. The greatest tools you have are a sense of humanity, insight, and the genuine desire to tell a story. You need to be good with people and work up close and intimately rather than lurking in the distance with a long lens. Long lenses may save you from communicating with those that you photograph, but you will be denied the intimacy that comes from contact and communication.

 

I usually use a single DSLR fitted with a wide-angle lens or a wide-angle to short zoom. With the strike images you see in this article it was the Nikon 12-24mm lens, with other work it’s usually a 17-55mm lens. Sure, the wide angle creates some distortion, but it also creates visual interest. Out in the field, I try to be inconspicuous, but I also engage with people and try to make them feel comfortable and at ease. My eye is always looking for an interesting and potentially decisive moment, a pattern, an expression – but most of all, for elements that contribute to an understanding of what I am documenting; that serves to put it in context. Doing documentary work may sound difficult to you; not everyone wants to be in the middle of a protest march. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Some people have documented their families over the years in a way that tells a story. You could document your neighbourhood, events that happen such as the planning and gathering of goods for the Church fete – and then the actual day itself. Just tell a story with pictures rather than words. To revolve full circle – and back to the wedding photography that I feel so inadequate about. There is a new movement that has yet to really become widespread in South Africa – that of the documentary wedding. Not picture perfect images of a family following the usual formula – but everyday moments, the little things that happing during that special day, be it a tearful eye or, heaven forbid a double chin! Sounds like a new challenge, and one that might be worth taking up some day. After all, a wedding is a story in pictures just waiting to unfold.

 

If you need advice on documentary photography, feel free to contact me on: bendheim.peter@gmail.com