Awards Days Discussion Recap: The Rules of Documentary Photography

The panelists discuss the rules of documentary photography during the 2015 Awards Days.

Panelists and photographers Donald Weber and Darcy Padilla discuss the rules of documentary photography during the 2015 Awards Days.

Should the same ethical standards be applied to both photojournalism and documentary photography, when it comes to such issues as staging and self-expression?

And who should the custodians of such standards be: the photographers themselves or editors? These questions formed the focus of one of the panel sessions at the recent World Press Photo Awards Days.

Photography consultant David Griffin, chairing the panel, initiated discussion with the question: ‘Is there a place for personal expression in the genre?’ ‘Completely,’ answered photographer Darcy Padilla, saying that photographers were constantly engaged in a search for a personal style, a voice with which to communicate. Editor Dimitri Beck said he always looked for photographers with a point of view, those who put themselves into a story, but did so clearly, with transparency. Curator Silvia Omedes added that the only photography she trusted was that with a human touch, which came from a point of honesty. Photographer Donald Weber remarked that the idea of the roving photojournalist as a beacon of truth was a fallacy, that culture was itself an influence on the photos journalists took.

Griffin asked whether the question could be pushed as far as justifying staging in the guise of self-expression. Weber thought it could. What was important was the best way to tell a story. This was not a question of a photographer imposing his or her will: the story itself revealed how it should be told. Staging was a tool, as long as it was done honestly. He pointed out that some of the most powerful work on World War I came in the form of poetry and fiction. Beck said he found staging acceptable, as long as the photographer was up front about it. He had to know and trust the person behind the photographs. Padilla said she did not stage, but that that sort of photography had its place, possible as ‘documentary portraiture’.

A discussion on where photojournalism stopped and documentary photography started reached the conclusion that one was part of the other, but that it was crucial to avoid deceit. Photographers had to have a set of internal standards, to work within a personal ethical framework. The general opinion seemed that it was possible to work more broadly, towards a core set of ethical standards that allowed room for personal expression, provided that this was done with honesty and a genuine intention to understand what you were photographing. Trust was essential in the industry, especially as the proliferation of social media and lack of editorial funds meant that images were often sourced from photographers on the ground, who were not aware of conventional professional ethical standards. Workshops and education had an important role here.

Today’s audiences are inundated with images, and becoming more demanding of photography. Weber made the point that style—overly aesthetic, overly dramatic interpretation—was consuming photojournalism, leading to a corruption of the system. Discussion moved on to examine whether editors were not also partially to blame for this, in the demands they made of photographers. Training had a role here, too, said Beck. Workshops for editors were rare.

Photojournalism, and the industry as a whole, is undergoing enormous change. As it is journalists’ job to document change, said Griffin, it is natural, healthy and necessary that they question internal changes within the profession.

Posted July 1 2015

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