Op Ed: Treating Protests Like Documentary Porn is Sickening

A few years ago, I never would have thought that documentary porn would have been an issue.

There’s a pretty big issue these days involving documentary-style photography, and it stems from the street photography community. I’ve seen it in several different protests. Maybe that’s where I should start. Reviews Editor Paul Ip and I have both been out to demonstrations to document what’s going on. It’s a significant part of our job with testing cameras and lenses. But we’re not doing it for our own self-pleasure. More importantly, we’re part of a company that has a celebrated history of championing the rights of minorities for years. And with this, I feel I have the power and standpoint to address the problem of documentary porn.

You’ve probably never heard of documentary porn. It’s quite literally a person of privilege working to document something or someone that has a cause or problem. It’s wanting to tell their story, which is fine in some ways, but the result is what’s the problem. The images end up not really going anywhere but maybe the photographer’s Instagram. Those people are taking photos for pretty much just themselves. They’re not trying to help a cause. They’re not trying to actually tell a story by selling or licensing the images to a publication for a larger story. No. They’re doing it just to say that they have the experience of telling a story. Now, this isn’t new. It’s been happening for years, but it’s become more and more prevalent recently. People these days tend to do it to bring attention to themselves. And that’s just wrong.

This is inherently built out of street photography. And people don’t remember that street photography, documentary photography, and photojournalism are different things. Street photography is about candidly documenting life. Photojournalism has the intention of telling a story, as does documentary photography: there’s an end goal. It’s most likely for money and also for you championing a cause. Photojournalism is a real fly on the wall art that makes you not have a specific slant. Documentary, on the other hand, can surely have a slant. Street is simply for your own pleasure. And quite honestly, there have been way too many street photographers popping up in the past few years with not enough education on ethics and intentions.

So let me set up for you a series of soul searching questions that you should answer first:

  • Am I a photojournalist that has ties to a publication and can tell the story about what’s going on?
  • Am I a documentary style photographer that can amplify the story of what’s going to produce tangible and visible results?
  • Am I going out on an assignment?
  • Do I know what I’m going to do with these photos, and more specifically, is there an end goal to these images involving an editor or a publication?
  • Am I going to produce a body of work from this imagery that will be able to do something or change a part of the world?
  • Am I going to meet up and geek out with friends just to enjoy ourselves?
  • Have I gone over a list of things that I will do to be respectful to the people I’m documenting?

If the answer to these questions is no, then I’m going to implore you to put the camera down. Your sharing the images on your Instagram isn’t going to do much at all. You’re going to get crushed by the algorithm. Please, do better. Come up with a plan and check your own intentions. Don’t give in to documentary porn.