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Documentary Photography vs Photojournalism

What is photojournalism and why is it different from documentary?
If you’re interested in either or both, you might have already asked yourself the same question.
In this article, I’ll explain the differences and similarities.

Similarities

I’ve completed a few photo-documentaries in my career. People sometimes call me a photojournalist because of that. I don’t mind because they look very similar when you’re not into either one of the photography genres.
So, before we go into the differences, let me explain the similarities first.
A Photojournalism shot from an assignment in Africa.
Photojournalism: A shot from one of my assignments in Africa. © Joris Hermans

Capture Facts and Reality

Both photojournalism and documentary photography are about capturing events and facts. Every photo should tell the truth and show reality.
The goal for both genres is to inform the viewer on certain events or topics.

Be Invisible

A second important similarity: The photographer has to be almost invisible when working and taking photos. This is necessary to capture the moment.
You don’t want to interrupt what’s happening when you’re taking photos of something because it would change the course of events.
For example, people will act in a different way when they’re aware of you taking photos.

Ethics

Both photojournalists and documentary photographers should respect certain ethics. Your photos have to be accurate, fair and thorough. Like journalists, photographers should act with integrity.
It’s one of the most important aspects of both genres. It has caused the downfall of more than one photographer.
A photojournalism shot from a series about a hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. photojournalism vs documentary photography
From my series about a hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. © Joris Hermans

Difference

The main difference between photojournalism and documentary is time. It takes more time to create a documentary than photojournalism-related work.
Documentary photographers can take anything from a few weeks to several years. But I’ll mention it again: There’s a very thin line between the two genres in modern photography.

What Is Photojournalism

Being a photojournalist is not as great as it used to be. The great times are over and everybody with a phone can provide news related images these days. You don’t have to be a specialist to be a photographer.
Does that mean photojournalism is dead? No, but photojournalists have to be able to do a lot more than take photos these days. More on that later.

The Purpose of Photojournalism

What is photojournalism? It’s all about informing about events as quickly as possible. That’s one of the biggest differences with documentaries.
If something happens today, it has to be in the newspaper or online by tomorrow at the latest.
Photojournalism portrait of a boy whose leg had to be amputated.
Photojournalistic portrait of a boy whose leg had to be amputated. © Joris Hermans

Topics

Photojournalists cover anything from breaking news to famous or important people and sports. From local news to global events.
These are some common topics:
  • Economics
  • Politics
  • Important people
  • Sports
  • Events

Capture the Truth

Being truthful and acting with integrity is one of the most important things for a photojournalist. Media companies’ reputation rely on what they show the public.
They demand only photos that show the truth, no matter what the subject is.
A photojournalist captures events exactly as they happened. There is NO room for personal touches or showing political differences for example.
A black and white photo of a Catholic nun in the DRC. Photojournalism vs documentary photography
Catholic nun in the DRC. © Joris Hermans
The problem here is that a photographer has the power of altering reality by framing a photo differently. But that’s another and very difficult discussion.

The Modern Photojournalist

The great times for photojournalists are long gone. Newspapers and media companies are getting rid of staff photographers. The fact that everyone owns a smartphone doesn’t help either.
The good news is that you can still be a photojournalist even if it’s not like the old days. If you want to do the job well, you need to be able to do more than take photos. Writing is an important skill for a photojournalist these days.
You even have to know how to run a website and know your way around computers. It’s not a trade for specialists anymore. You’ll have to work hard to stand out and be successful.

What Is Documentary Photography

The Purpose of a Documentary

Many photo-documentaries want to raise awareness and go deeper than photojournalism. An idea starts with the interest of the photographer himself. The photographer wants to answer certain questions.
This takes more time than photojournalism. It’s the main difference between the two genres.
A diptych of a man posing outside a galvanized shed and a garden area, from a personal documentary project about a social housing community in Belgium.
From a personal documentary project about a social housing community in Belgium. © Joris Hermans

A documentary photographer is also often involved in his subject for a longer time. This is necessary to be able to tell a truthful story, answer all questions and see different angles.

Topics

Documentaries capture events and facts that are relevant to us as human beings and society. Common topics for documentaries are:
  • Environment
  • People (especially minorities)
  • Social issues
A documentary portrait of a man in a shell uniform
One of my documentary portraits. © Joris Hermans
People almost always play an important role in documentary photography.

Research

Documentaries often tell a complex story. That’s why there’s always a lot of research that goes before actually starting to take photos. This research phase can last for months depending on the topic.
It’s one of the reasons why creating a documentary takes more time.

Personal Project

Documentary photographers have more freedom. A personal interest often triggers the start of a project. The photographer will be deeper involved in his subject than a photojournalist.
Documentary photography: A shot from the series 'Behind The Redwood Curtain'. I stayed in a small town in Northern California for three weeks.
© Joris Hermans
That’s why the result is often very personal. It depends on what the photographer wants to show and tell about the topic. Especially independent documentaries, funded by the photographer himself, often have a personal angle. Also the artistic vision is as important as showing the facts.
Some photographers spend their whole life on one documentary work.

Modern Documentary Photography

Documentary photography is becoming very popular. It’s a true art form these days. The combination of aesthetics, ethics and long term dedication makes it a difficult genre. But, it’s also very rewarding to make a documentary.
The good thing is that you can start your own documentary in the street where you live. You don’t have to travel all over the world to make it interesting and worthwhile.
A portrait of three boys. From 'Grey Summer Garden'. Photojournalism vs documentary photography
Portrait of three boys. From ‘Grey Summer Garden’. © Joris Hermans

Conclusion

There are definitely differences and similarities. But both genres are important in the world of photography. Most photographers that practice one of the two genres also explore the other.
If you want to start with one of the two genres then you’ll have to ask yourself: “What do I want?”.
Do you want to act fast and show the truth about what’s happening today? Or do you want to take your time and tell a complex story? A complete work about a topic that’s not only important for history but also society and humanity.
Both genres are very rewarding and highly regarded by society as well as art lovers. Don’t hesitate to jump into either one of the genres.

 

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