Street and Documentary Photography: What’s the Difference?

Street and documentary photography are so closely linked that they often can be mistaken for being the same thing. If we analyse both genres, on the surface we will find many similarities. Both center around the model of the candid frame. They are unpredictable and often the photographer will have to adapt their approach in order to get the story they are wanting to tell. They are a form of social documentary, portraying the current times, people, and culture. When we think of a master like Robert Frank, his work has somehow merged the two genres into one. But remember, that is just the surface. Once we go deeper the differences start to develop and we’re going to take a look at them.

A Brief Word on Robert Frank

The Americans by Robert Frank was the first photo book I ever bought. I felt such a gravitational pull to this series of photographs that I was unable to stop looking at them. Even to this day, each time I pick up the book I have the same feeling as I did the first time I viewed it. I was rather naive when I purchased the book and didn’t really have a full grasp of the narrative. I was just so mesmerized by the wonderful, powerful photographs that I wasn’t really putting them together. At the time, prior to finding the book, I hadn’t actually heard of Robert Frank. I remember asking an old friend who he was and she told me he was a street photographer. A few days later I was speaking with another friend about the work of Frank and he replied, “Oh yes, he is a great documentary photographer.” From that point on, because I was a little green, I would tell people I was a street and documentary photographer. I sure reflect on that now and cringe.

What Is the Difference Between Street and Documentary Photography?

The question is widely debated amongst photographers. And although I feel my understanding of the difference is correct, it is just my opinion. Let’s look at a street photograph. When someone puts a good piece of street photography on my desk there are a few key things I’m looking for. One of the things that must stand out is the narrative. While I enjoy some mystery and for the image to encourage some questioning, I don’t want to have to go beyond the single frame to get what I need. For me, a street photograph must be a micro-story; the beginning, middle, and end in one image. I’m also looking to see if the photographer has used some creative license (maybe in the way it has been shot or via the post-production). I’ve never been one to get hung on strict rules within street photography and I much prefer a creative, liberal approach. With documentary photography, however, what I’m looking for is slightly different. If a single frame tells me everything, then there is nowhere else for me to go. Sure you may have 20 other images to go with it, but if you give everything away too soon, then I have no desire to look further. Documentary photography keeps the viewer waiting for the answers. It gradually builds the story and uses single images that collectively become one. Furthermore, I want the raw truth from a set of documentary photographs. No fancy editing, no cool tricks and thrills – just authentic factual photography.

How Does Meaning Influence the Two?

Meaning in photography: we get so caught up on that. I think anyone who practices candid photography has, at some point or another, desired to change the world through meaningful work. When it comes to street photography, while I love a meaningful image, it’s not the be all end all. I’m quite content with having a warm fuzzy feeling brought on by the aesthetic of a photo, rather than always having to ask, “but what does it mean?” With a documentary photographer, I need to know they had a deeper purpose. Their work does not have to change the world, but the story told needs to have a meaningful impact on me. I want to know why they did the series, what was there objective, and to see if it has been achieved. Simply put, I’ll quite happily go to a street photography exhibition that’s full of 20 pretty pictures and won’t have any issues. If that’s all I get from a documentary exhibition, I’m going to feel a little short-changed.

Are Street Projects Classed as Documentary?

Many street photographers have done successful projects that involve more than one image. But that does not mean it then becomes documentary. For me, street photography projects tend to be a little more simplistic in comparison to documentary photography. That’s not to play them down, but here’s why I say that. One of street photography’s more popular projects in recent times was done by Dougie Wallace. He spent time outside Harrods (a department store in London targeted to the extremely wealthy) and photographed their customers. It was a cool project and he did very well out of it. But other than a group of images of disgustingly rich (and quite scary looking) people, the series did not offer much more. Going back to Robert Frank and his work in The Americans we have a much different story. In isolation, he had some strong street images. But as a collective, he built a story that had a strong social impact. It documented values, loneliness, racial tensions; it got to the core of what America was like during that time. The work inspired debate, division, and hope. Considered controversial for its time, many US critics denounced the work. The book really did change things; it was true documentary photography. Both have their place and both can lend to each other, but the impact they have should be completely different. (ps – until I do a meaningful project, if people ask I firmly tell them I’m a street photographer.)

Dan Ginn is a UK based street photographer and writer. Learn more about him via his website and Instagram.