Documentary Photography

and Photo Journalism:

Still Images of A World In Motion




B. D. Colen




e live in a constantly moving world, and everywhere we turn we see moving images of that world. Even our music has been transformed into moving images through the medium of music videos. Given that, one must ask what role, if any, still photography in general, and traditional documentary photography and photojournalism in particular, play in our perception of the world around us.


In Documentary Photography and Photo Journalism: Still Images of A World In Motion, you will be exposed to the work of a number of great documentary photographers and photojournalists, as well as to writing about the documentary tradition. Further, you will work throughout the term on a photo documentary project of your own, attempting to reduce a tiny area of the moving world to a set of still images that convey what the viewer needs to know about what you saw – without hearing the sounds, smelling the odors, experiencing what was happening outside the viewfinder, and without seeing the motion. You will also write a paper about the subject of your photo documentary.


The class will meet for three hours, one evening per week, with each class divided between a discussion of issues, ideas, and readings, and group critique and discussion of each of your term projects.


Class enrollment will be limited to 15 students, to allow for sufficient review/criticism in class, of your individual work. You will be expected to have your own photographic equipment, and will be responsible for your own processing and printing – which you may do yourself or have done commercially. You need not have sophisticated photo equipment, but you must demonstrate at least basic proficiency with the equipment you already have.

Space Ship(This photo project was originally conceived by Charles Harbutt for use in his workshops. I have made some modifications in it.)


This assignment is intended to test your imagination, and your ability to capture your ideas as images.


Assume for a moment that you are going to be leaving earth on a spaceship, never to return. There will not be any form of entertainment or decoration on the ship. You will not have any mirrors, films, works of art, etc. You will be eating processed food and drinking filtered urine. You may, however, bring 10 photographs with you.


In a 24 hours period, without consulting any of your classmates, make 10 photographic images that will sustain you on your voyage. We are not looking for great art; we are looking for personally meaningful images. Do you want pictures of your dog? Your mother? Or the manhole cover outside your apartment? It’s up to you.


Documentary Photo Project:


Each of you will be required to plan and carryout a documentary photo project. You may select your own subject – subject to my approval, but I would urge that you not take on anything too grandiose. I would suggest that you begin looking for a subject close to home, considering, for instance:

·        Life on your dorm floor;

·        A fraternity weekend, or life in a fraternity;

·        A day-week-month in a local laundromat;

·        The work of a scientist, or lab;

·        The activities of a campus group or organization.


On the other hand, you may push the envelop as far as you dare – If you can gain access to a group of people, or an organization, whose lives or functioning we normally never see, go for it. But remember, to paraphrase Susan Meiselas:

“Faraway is not a place.”


And even more important, remember that there is one thing that you owe your subjects, be they your roommates or a group of developmentally disabled adults -


Honesty: honesty in your vision; honesty in what you tell your subjects about your project and its purpose; honesty in your approach to your subject; and honesty in what you present to your viewers.


Your finished project will consist of 15-30 photographs, and 1500-2000 words of explanatory text. The text and photographs should, together, present the uninitiated with an understandable, engaging, ‘picture’ of your subject, but the writing and the photos should each stand on their own.


Required readings:


On Photography – Susan Sontag – the seminal intellectual examination of photography and its role in modern life – often pedantic, and often boring, but filled with both maddening and extremely insightful observations about photography and photographers. Available in paperback.


Doing Documentary Work – Robert Coles – the compilation of a series of lectures the Harvard psychiatrist and documentarian gave at the New York Public Library. The lectures explore the ethical, intellectual, and technical challenges facing anyone who would do documentary work. While photography per se is only a peripheral part of this work, the principles and ideas discussed by Coles apply as much to documentary photography as they do to any other type of documentary fieldwork. Available in paperback.


In Our Time  - Ken Light –  Interviews with a wide range of outstanding documentary photographers, including Eugene Richards, Mary Ellen Mark, Sabastio Salgado, Donna Ferrato, and others. The photographers talk about their careers, work, and lives in documentary photography. A paperback;


Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, Eugene Richards, and Mary Ellen Mark,– each in the Phaidon 55 series (don’t panic, they’re $7.95 each); each of these little paperbacks – with surprisingly good photo reproduction – explores in an essay, in the captions, and in 55 images, the career of a different photographer. Lange is best known for the propaganda work she did during the depression for the Farm Security Administration; Smith, a somewhat mad, constantly maddening, genius, is credited with ‘inventing’ the modern photo essay; Richards, often called the intellectual/artistic heir to Smith and an even earlier generation of documentarians, is known for his stunning photo projects focusing on the most at risk in our society; and Mark is one of today’s leading documentary photographers and teachers of photography.


The Photo Book – The miniature version. This Phaidon paperback provides an introduction to the work of many of the leading names in the history of photography. And it’s only $9.95.


Requiem: By The Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina – Tim Page & Horst Faas – Requiem is the seminal collection of photojournalism of the Vietnam War, and the entire collection consists of work by photographers, including many North Vietnamese photographers, who died while covering the fighting in Indochina.




Migrations or Workers – Sabastio Salgado. Two of the major works by this economist-turned-photographer who has set out to document the impact of Western economies and geopolitics on lives and living conditions of those in the Third World. The work is so outstanding from a photographic/artistic standpoint that it has been criticized for beautifying poverty and suffering to the point where the horror is lost in the beauty.



Writing Assignments:


While this is a photography course, it is a photography course offered by the Program In Writing, and therefore there will be heavy emphasis on writing. Students will be required to write four, 750-1000 word essays, responding to their reading and class discussion:


1 -  “Do Photographs Tell The Truth?” – Using On Photography as a taking off point, support or refute the argument that a photograph, which captures only a single instant in time, can never present an accurate, honest, representation of an event or situation;


2 -  “Objectivity – Myth, Reality, or Ultimate Goal” – Consider Cole’s view of objectivity and the biases of the documentarian, and explain whether a documentary photographer can – or should – be objective, and what part objectivity, or lack of it, plays in the value of the photographers work;


3 -  “Richards and Salgado – Two Documentary Visions” – While Gene Richards is considered one of the great, if not the greatest, American documentary photographers of his generation, he is hardly a photographic “artist” in the technical sense, depending as he does on the raw impact of his images, rather than their technical perfection or beauty. Sebastiao Salgado, on the other hand, produces rich, gorgeous, technically perfect photographic images of unimaginable suffering. Which of these approaches do you prefer, and why? Does either approach detract from the photographers work, or specifically add to it?


4 -  “Shooters – When Is The Photojournalist A Voyeur, Rather Than A Reporter With A Camera” – Using examples from Requiem, consider whether a photojournalist, covering genuine news – as opposed to celebrity stalking – can go too far? Are there some things that should not be photographed? Are there areas of privacy in the most public of arenas? Where does the photographer cease being a photographer, and start being a human being?





Week 1 – Introduction to the course, course materials, and subject. Discussion of slides and photographs – Discussion of Documentary Photo Project.


Week 2 – Road Trip to Wellesley College to attend presentation by documentary photographer Susan Meiselas.


Week 3 – Discussion of Sontag.


Week 4 – Sontag papers due; discussion of Richards and Salgado.


Week 5 – Space Ship must land; project proposals due.


Week 6 – Saglado/Richards paper due – further discussions of project proposals.


Week 7 – Discussion of Coles; Coles paper due; project discussion in light of Coles.


Week 8 – Initial contact sheets/proofs of project due.


Week 9 – Requiem discussion; first draft of project text due


Week 10 – Requiem paper due; discussion of draft texts.


Week 11 – Project photo selections due; discussion of selections.


Week 12 – Discussion of projects.


Week 13 – Dinner, discussion, presentation of final projects.