Documentary Photography – Quotes

mickyatesContextualResearch, Critical Research Journal, Documentary, Ideas, Photography, Quotes, SPWeek11, Sustainable Prospects Leave a Comment

In preparation for my Oral Presentation, I posted some quotes that I have found inspiring over the years.

After writing about my practice, I thought I would post some further quotes particulary on documentary photography, which illustrate the way I aspire to do my work.

Whilst I am including several photographers, I am going to pick one as an exemplar. Adam Clark Vroman was a rather typical white, well-to-do photographer at the end of the 19th Century. Like many others, he set out to document the lives of Native American Indians. Unlike others, though, he was not romantic or sentimental in his work. He tried to be as objective as he possibly could be, making sure he thoroughly researched what he found, and was most respectful to his subjects in the portraits he took.

Adam Clark Vroman. c. 1901. Hopi Maiden.

Perhaps, in fact, Vroman was the very first ‘dead pan’ documentarian, not in the sense of today’s universally banal aesthetic, but in the sense of trying to think first of the subject, and keep himself ‘out’ of the picture as well as provide an objective view for his audience.

This might seem an impossible task, though I think Vroman got closer to objectivity than any other photographer I have studied.

Reading his diaries, Vroman naturally uses the language of his time – talking of strategies to ‘ingratiate himself’ with the Native Indians (showing his camera and explaining it first, for example). But his intentions, to properly understand, respect and accurately report, are crystal clear.

My first thought was to see [the dance] again and know more about it, why it was, and how it is planned. I felt I could spend a year right there, be one of them and learn their ways and beliefs‘.

Adam Clark Vroman. Personal Diary, Volume 14.

Also at (Accessed 17.11.2017).



‘A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective’.

Irving Penn. Noted in Popular Photography, February 1956.


The Purpose:

Photography can light up darkness and expose ignorance

Lewis Hine.

Walther, Peter. 2018. Lewis W. Hine: America at Work. Cologne: Taschen.


A Single Image:

‘Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes’

Henri Cartier-Bresson. 1952. The Decisive Moment. 2014 Ed. Göttingen: Steidl.


You are IN your photographs:

‘Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures’.

Don McCullin. 1994.  Sleeping With Ghosts : A Life’s Work in Photography. London: Jonathan Cape.

‘A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed’.

Ansel Adams.


Photographs Freeze Time:

‘Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality … One can’t possess reality, one can possess images – one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past’.

Susan Sontag.  1977. On Photography. New York: Anchor Books.


On Capturing a Story:

‘a photographer … gets right inside the story, gets accepted as part of it, stands in the right place at the right time, and presses the shutter’.

Bill Hurn 

Jay, Bill & Hurn, David. 1996. On Being a Photographer. Available at: (Accessed 2/09/2018).


Documentary is Useful, not Art:

‘Documentary: That’s a sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. The term should be documentary style, You see a document has use, whereas art is really useless’.

Walker Evans. 1971. Art in America, March-April 1971.



‘The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda’.

Robert Capa. 1937. Interview with New York World Telegram, about the ‘Falling Soldier’

“Everything is propaganda for what you believe in, actually, isn’t it? I don’t see that it could be otherwise. The harder and the more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you’re a propagandist. Conviction, propaganda, faith. I don’t know, I never have been able to come to the conclusion that that’s a bad word.

Dorothea Lange. 1980. Dorothea Lange: Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1935–1939. Glencoe, Illinois: Text-Fiche Press.


Stories with Meaning:

‘A documentary photograph is not a factual photograph per se. It is a photograph which carries the full meaning of the episode’.

Dorothea Lange.

1960-61, published 1968. Interview with Suzanne Riess. The Making of a Documentary Photographer. University of California Bancroft Library. Available at 11.11.2018).


So far, rather positive and inspirational quotes.

But here are a couple from Martha Rosler that suggest serious ‘watch-outs’ for a documentary photographer.

Manipulation Everywhere:

‘Any familiarity with photographic history shows that manipulation is integral to photography‘.

Martha Rosler. 2004. Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Boston: MIT Press.


Photographic Imperialism:

Are we asserting the easy dominion of our civilization over all times and all places, as signs that we casually absorb as a form of loot?

Martha Rosler. 2004. Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Boston: MIT Press.

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