Documentary Photography: The Truth Most of You Won’t Accept

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Documentary photography is often a polarizing genre. Not only because of the topics. But also because of who photographs, and more so, where they photograph. Western photographers often lust after impactful stories happening in nations less fortunate than theirs. That’s something that doesn’t sit right with me. It’s even harder to stomach when said photographers return home and receive a bunch of accolades for their efforts.

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“To paraphrase what I said, and to be blunt: I do not like that photographers from the western world chase and garner success from the suffering in other nations. And I’m happy to go on record and say it needs to stop.”

Shooting Documentary Photography Overseas

Anybody pursuing documentary photography as a career wants to have the best success possible. To do that, photographers have to find the world’s most important stories and share them with the world. Many of those stories exist outside developed nations. Areas like the middle-east, Africa, and Latin America tend to be the hub of painful stories. That’s not to say the likes of North America and Europe don’t have issues; they certainly do. But it seems to be in places of absolute poverty and adversity where you’ll find documentary photographers and photojournalists.

“I do not like that photographers from the western world chase and garner success from the suffering in other nations. And I’m happy to go on record and say it needs to stop.”

Many of these overseas photographers gain widespread recognition for their work. They receive awards and are applauded for their efforts. In other words, photographers are rewarded for sharing stories about countries they otherwise have no affiliation with — this seems wrong.

Documantary Photography by Local Photographers

This isn’t a case of me trying to find an issue when one doesn’t exist. I remember a tweet in 2020 from photojournalist and documentary photographer Solmaz Daryani. She, too, commented on overseas photographers flying in to tell stories about her nation (stories she was telling herself) and getting widespread praise for it. In the tweet, she wrote:

“…addressing the structures, industry and university and academics that promote and support all this, creating discussions around Parachute journalism capitalizing on local (particularly women) photographers’ work for easy fame and recognition…”

–Solmaz Daryani.

And that’s a point worth making. It’s not like these nations don’t have photographers. Photography is a global practice. And it’s not like there’s a lack of talent either. Some of the best photography I’ve seen is from photographers in the developing world: yet they struggle to be seen.

And this isn’t a unique situation. Since photography came into fruition, western photographers have dominated the space. Google “best photographers of all time,” the round-ups are littered with photographers from developed nations. Can it really be true that those nations just happen to have more talented photographers? I think we all know the answer is no.

To paraphrase what I said, and to be blunt: I do not like that photographers from the western world chase and garner success from the suffering in other nations. And I’m happy to go on record and say it needs to stop.

That’s not to say they shouldn’t be free to visit other countries and make images. They can even share those images, and should the public connect to them, that’s fine. Would I rather they connected to local photographers? Of course. But I’m not here to control the freedom of photography, and more importantly, the freedom of opinion.

The Gatekeepers Should Take Control

But those who can take control are the people who hand out awards. We already know “judges” are gatekeepers rather than the cornerstone of public opinion. They choose who they want to succeed, regardless if there’s better work out there. They could easily impose rules (they impose many already) that state only local photographers can receive awards and recognition for work created in their nation.

Some will challenge this and call it “positive discrimination.” Others may argue it will devalue the quality of photography. To you, I encourage you to do your research. Again, fantastic photography comes out of all the corners of the globe, not just the western world like that narrative has often led us to believe.

More so, stories are far more authentic when the photographer is part of it. They empathize more and feel the struggles more, which reflects in the photographs they create. Surely, this only leads to a higher standard of photography in the long run? I certainly think so.

What do you think? Am I on to a point here? Or am I making an issue out of nothing? As always, I would love to know your opinion on the topic. Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host professional photographers within the industry.