Everything you wanted to know about social documentary photography

Sep 21, 2022

Stephanie Avilés and Tara Todras-Whitehill

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Everything you wanted to know about social documentary photography

Sep 21, 2022

Stephanie Avilés and Tara Todras-Whitehill

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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It takes tremendous skill to immortalize the iron-willed defiance of a protester, a mother’s tender touch, or the resilience on the face of a refugee. This type of powerful imagery strikes a delicate balance between documenting real-life and inspiring social change. It is commonly referred to as social documentary photography. As we discuss this specialty, you will notice that its applications often bleed into other related specialties, such as humanitarian photography and brand narrative.

Table of Contents

  • What is Social Documentary Photography?
  • Photojournalism vs Social Documentary
  • The Purpose of Social Documentary Photography
  • Hiring Social Documentary Photographers
  • Commercial & Editorial Projects
  • Considerations When Starting a Social Documentary Project
    • Do Your Homework
    • Keep Ethics Top of Mind
    • Take Care of Yourself
TIME Magazine tearsheet featuring photography by Mary Beth Koeth.

What is Social Documentary Photography?

Social documentary photography’s objective is to highlight social or environmental issues. While often it’s advocacy-oriented, it’s not inherently so. A county fair, celebrities, fashion, and sports can all fall under the social documentary label. If that sounds like a pretty broad definition, that’s because it is. So, it’s helpful to keep in mind what social documentary photography is not. It’s not breaking news events, conflict zones, wildlife, landscapes, or street photography. Of course, there are exceptions — especially when any of these subjects relate to human experience.

Zave Smith’s photo series documents Eagles fans during a tailgate celebration.

An example is Johannesburg, South Africa-based photographer George Qua Enoo’s witch camp project. In it, he documents a group of women accused of witchcraft in Northern Ghana. He shot the project while on a one-week assignment in Northern Ghana for Christian Outreach Fellowship (COF.) According to George, the organization partnered with the chief of a village to harbor women who have fled from their communities in fear of their lives. They are also lobbying the local government to make it illegal to accuse anyone of witchcraft.

After I had listened to their stories, we decided to spend more time with them and highlight their story separately. Most of the women were simply strong-willed and men couldn’t control them, so they were accused of being witches and banished from their communities.

George Qua-Enoo’s project “Ghana Witch Camp” showcases the lives of women in Ghana banished from their communities or under threat of death due to accusations of witchcraft.

When it comes to social documentary projects, the work is largely focused on people and their personal experiences. This is especially relevant when documenting people in marginalized communities. Hence it is necessary to also consider the ethical implications of the work. George explains:

It’s imperative that any social documentary photograph depicts facts. I also always show humanity and empathy when photographing emotionally difficult scenarios.

George Qua-Enoo’s project “Ghana Witch Camp” showcases the lives of women in Ghana banished from their communities or under threat of death due to accusations of witchcraft.

Photojournalism vs Social Documentary

Wonderful Machine defines social documentary as a style of long-form reporting as opposed to daily news coverage. Social documentary is considered a subset of documentary photography and a form of photojournalism or reportage photography. The photojournalism definition is about capturing real life as it’s happening — including social documentary, breaking news, and conflict/crisis.

Bradley Secker’s collection of images for the New York Times documents Afghanistan’s national soccer team’s first match since the fall of the democratic government.

Despite sharing the photojournalism label, social documentary photography is distinct from breaking news or conflict photography in its purpose, approach, and pace. While the latter styles of photography are limited to a single news story or event, social documentary images are used collectively to illuminate a deeper issue.

Take Barcelona, Spain-based photographer and filmmaker Jordi Ruiz Cirera’s collection of images for the Economist’s 1843 magazine as an example. It illustrates the complex visual storytelling that takes place within the social documentary genre. His images and the accompanying article reveal Cuba’s fading Jewish community through the story of a Jewish immigrant who journeyed from Antwerp to Cuba in the 1950s.

The Economist’s 1843 magazine’s article Salsa in the Synagogue.
Photographed by Jordi Ruiz Cirera.

For these types of projects, a photographer must have good social skills and the ability to put their subjects at ease. As a social documentary photographer, you will need to get very close and personal with your subjects. Jordi explains:

It can feel a bit intrusive at first for the subjects you’re working with. So it’s very important to be clear on what you’re doing and why, know how to move around, be respectful of other people’s spaces and boundaries, and be grateful when you’re given access to certain situations.

The Purpose of Social Documentary Photography

Broadly speaking, social documentary photography aims to chronicle the human condition. Early pioneers of the genre, like Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine, referred to their work as “concerned documentary”. They took their photographs with the intent to draw attention to human rights issues. While the term “concerned photography” is no longer used, modern social documentary photographers still use their photography as a means of raising awareness and advocating for social change. This can also include social-political issues and class disparity. For example, American photographer Larry Fink’s most famous photographic work Social Graces. It highlights the contrast between the leisurely gatherings of New York’s elite with those of lower and middle-class people in rural Pennsylvania.

A tearsheet from a Businessweek story on exploitative labor practices in North America. Photographed by Sara Stathas.

Because both social documentary and humanitarian photography focus on advocacy, clients for this type of photography are similar. News publications, educational institutions, nonprofits, and health institutions are good examples of clients that regularly commission social documentary photography.

However, this is not the only purpose of the genre. Social documentary photography can also ask questions about society and culture. This is evident in Matt Odom‘s work for National Geographic which focuses on rethinking the way we talk about race.

National Geographic tearsheet featuring Matt Odom’s photography.

Hiring Social Documentary Photographers

As with any photography assignment, clients should look at a photographer’s style and portfolio. This will help determine if they are a good fit for a project. The proximity to the location of the shoot will also be a factor for non-profit organizations that may have smaller budgets. However, the right photographic style and skills will ultimately be what lands you the assignment.

While experience with the genre is helpful and certainly appreciated, George doesn’t think a photographer has to have prior experience as a documentary photographer to be hired for this type of work.

Their portfolio must exhibit some form of raw storytelling. When I got my first assignment to travel to West Africa, I didn’t have any prior experience as a social documentary photographer. But, I did have street photography images and some images I had taken at a rally in Toronto that I presented in my portfolio. The images were “raw” and authentic and the client liked that.

An article and image focusing on how people in Dandora live on income gained from picking garbage in landfills. Image by George Qua-Enoo while on assignment for Greiner during the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly.

The photographer must also be healthy and physically fit. “I’ve had to walk on foot with my backpack and camera gear for miles to get to a remote location inaccessible by car,” said George. The ability to change course quickly is also crucial.

Being able to tell a story in your images without directing is key. Sometimes you will have to anticipate what will unfold as you are photographing. You’ll also need to think quickly on your feet and photograph your subjects/scenes in natural light in their surroundings because scenarios can change very quickly.

Ashley Stephan is a creative director for Nebraska-based nonprofit the Arbor Day Foundation. She considers a photographer’s quality of work, flexibility, and ability to adapt on the fly when hiring for social documentary projects. According to Ashley, they must be enjoyable to collaborate with as well. It seems obvious but consider that you may be traveling with clients and crew, and working very closely together, sometimes in remote or potentially challenging locations.

Be kind to your crew, and trust them to do the work that they do so well.

Before starting a project, Ashley provides photographers with a brief including examples, style sheets, a project overview, shot lists, and key contact information. This is a common practice that allows the photographer and client to prepare, and manage expectations.

Nonprofits have smaller budgets to work with than say a healthcare company or an educational institution. But the work can be rewarding and have the potential to make a significant impact on vulnerable populations. When asked about compensation, Ashley shared:

Ranges depend on the potential depth of stories that we could conceivably cull from a location. We shoot library-style and try to craft as many stories as possible. As a nonprofit, our budgets are not huge. We try to keep a minimal footprint on location.

Commercial & Editorial Projects

Ackerman and Gruber is a Minneapolis-based husband and wife team comprised of photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber. They began their career working on a set of personal projects documenting mental illness, aging, and death inside a prison. That experience has shaped how they approach their personal projects as well as the commercial work they do today. Tim explains:

You have to balance how you’re meeting your client’s needs while respecting the story and the people you’re photographing.

Images from Ackerman + Gruber’s project “Served out: Aging and dying behind bars”
Jen and Tim’s project documents mental illness, aging, and death in prisons.

The project also taught them a lot about how to work with people and sensitive subject matters. In particular, Tim recalls the importance of bringing people into the process early on and being very upfront about what you hope to accomplish. In this case, the warden allowed them to photograph inside the prison because he believed in what they were trying to do.

Every photojournalist wants to work in a prison but not everyone gets access. You have to be very transparent about your intentions.

While not every personal project a photographer makes will be published, the goal of social documentary work is to document people’s real stories and raise awareness of social issues. So most projects within this genre tend to be inherently editorial.

I think the larger the audience, the better. We want our photography to give people pause and think about something. You can only do that when you’re reaching a broader audience.

An article about Silviana Marineci, a Romanian doctor at the University of Minnesota whose immigration status is being affected by changes to visa policies in the US. Jenn Ackerman for the New York Times.

There are also instances where social documentary photography can be used by corporations and brands to tell stories that promote their products or services. We refer to this as Brand Narrative photography. When working on a commercial project that documents real people and their stories many of the same principles apply. It’s important that the subject is comfortable with how they are portrayed, even though your mission is to be an advocate for your client. According to Jenn, getting on the phone with the person ahead of time to get to know them and asking permission throughout the entire process is key.

The process needs to make the subject feel like someone is really truly seeing you and that their story is part of history in some way, whether it’s a commercial or editorial project.

We love these kinds of commercial projects because it feels like the personal work we do every day. Also, we don’t really have to change our mindset even though it’s for a commercial client. We treat it like a personal project or a day-in-the-life assignment and we’re thankful for people letting us be a participant in their lives for a while.

For Jenn and Tim, the core of their work is contingent on building rapport, even before they ever pick up a camera. When working within the social documentary genre you have to be willing to listen. You have to be flexible in many unexpected ways, including changing how you think about the world.

One thing that we love about this type of work is that it changes us as people. It doesn’t matter if you’re photographing a CEO or a grandma taking care of her grandkids. We’ve never met someone that we’re photographing that we can’t find something we can relate to.

A project about Evangelical voters by Ackerman + Gruber for The New York Times.

Sometimes as a photographer, you will listen to someone’s story and realize that it wasn’t what you expected. So it is your responsibility to ensure you’re being truthful to the story. Jenn and Tim’s most significant piece of advice to clients hiring photographers for this type of work is to “include the photographer in the process early on and allow them to have a direct connection with the person being photographed.”

There are also instances where photographers may need to give the subject some space. Whether photographing an editorial or a commercial project, an experienced photographer can anticipate when things might happen and “read the room.” Jenn explains:

Sometimes you just know that this moment isn’t to be photographed, this moment is to be experienced, and it’s going to produce a better photograph later on. Likewise, there are times when you know that this moment is only going to happen once.

As an example, Jenn mentioned being in the only abortion clinic in North Dakota on the day when Roe v. Wade was overturned. She didn’t know what would happen but she had to anticipate what might, and communicate with the staff ahead of time.

This goes back to Jenn and Tim’s earlier point. Ask for permission during every step of the process because you may have to act quickly. “Explain that you know what they may be going through and if at some point you are not comfortable with it, you can stop. As a photographer you need to know when to step away,” said Jenn.

Confidence comes with doing more of this type of work.

To successfully make a living as a photographer, you need to be able to find ways to apply the skills and learnings from your specialties in different ways across commercial and editorial photography. Ackerman + Gruber are a great example of just that. When asked what compensation is typically like for social documentary projects, Jenn explained that it’s in the medium range. It could be anywhere from $800-$4,000 but that long-term projects may pay off. Tim shared:

Financially you can make a lot more money doing advertising work but we find this kind of work much more rewarding. We’re still able to make a comfortable living while feeling more creatively and emotionally satisfied, and connected with people.

Considerations When Starting a Social Documentary Project

Many photojournalists will engage with the social documentary genre at some point in their careers. Approach these projects with great thoughtfulness and care — both for the subjects and the photographer. There are several considerations to take into account when starting this kind of project:

Do Your Homework

Given the issues social documentary lends itself to, the story will likely involve vulnerable populations or sensitive topics. Make sure to know the ins and outs of the subject. Also keep in mind any power differentials at play, especially between the photographer and the subjects. Photojournalists have an obligation to their subjects to responsibly tell their story.

Keep Ethics Top of Mind

Important, gut-wrenching situations exist all around the world, and social documentaries can shine a light on them. However, the people in those images have lives beyond the lens. Photographers must be sure they are taking the right image, not just the one that “works.” What does that mean?

  • Avoid the visual narratives of “us” and “them”
  • Avoid paternalistic/savior approaches
  • Focus on common humanity
  • Focus on the subjects’ empowerment and facilitating their agency
  • Try to avoid generalizations by including specific details in captions
  • Remember that the audience can perceive an image to represent an entire social group

Take Care of Yourself

As New York-based photographer Ben Norman says,

The photographer has a huge responsibility to be as present as possible. That includes taking care of themselves before they get onto the assignment so that all of their attention is on the job.

A project of this nature (dealing with often sensitive social issues) requires concerted mental and emotional energy. Sloppiness will not do justice either to the story or the subject.

If you’re a newer photographer or you’re interested in taking on social documentary projects keep in mind that these types of projects, however rewarding, will often take a toll. “Social documentary photography isn’t glamorous. Some assignments could be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining,” says George.

About the Author

Stephanie Avilés is a Philadelphia-based marketing professional. She is a team member at the art production agency Wonderful Machine, where she establishes and maintains partnerships with publications, journalists, and professional organizations. But other than that, she’s also a writer, contributing to this agency’s blog. You can read more of her articles here and connect with her via LinkedIn.

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