Exercise: Defining documentary


Listen to Miranda Gavin talking about documentary photography at:


In your learning log, write a 200-word reflective commentary setting out your reactions to Gavin’s viewpoint.


An unfair summary of this would be that it spend five minutes not defining documentary but explaining why it is difficult to define.

It starts with the terms:

  • documentary
  • photojournalism
  • reportage

Gavin implies that they are confusing or interchangeable; I disagree. Documentary is as an umbrella term of which the others are sub-categories (as are social documentary, street photography etc).

Photojournalism is for illustrating news stories – it’s inherently topical, quick turnaround. Reportage is a more subjective, narrative-led approach where a story can be ‘moulded’ over time. Documentary in a wider sense can be entirely disconnected from current affairs, and self-driven by the documentarian.

Gavin discusses how documentary is changing, e.g. digital technology and the changing gender mix. But these are red herrings: the former brings changes in approach and the latter brings changes in subject matter – these are changes to the kind of work being produced, but do not alter the fundamental characteristics of documentary.

Documentary can be defined not in terms of its aesthetics or subject matter but in terms of its intent:

“Primarily, documentary was thought of as having a goal beyond the production of a fine print. The photographer’s goal was to bring the attention of an audience to the subject of his or her work” (Ohrn 1980, quoted in Wells 2009: 69)

Finally Gavin covers the overlap between documentary and art. I see this as straightforward: what starts as documentary (an intent-based definition) can become art (a consumption-based definition), but the reverse journey is not true.

“Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” (Seluka 1978, quoted in Wells 2009: 73)

This strikes me as a neat counterpart to the Ohrn quote above: documentary is ‘about’ the subject, art is ‘about’ the artist.


Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

http://oca-student.com/node/100125 (accessed 04/02/2016)


3 thoughts on “Exercise: Defining documentary

  1. Catherine 04 February 2016 / 16:31

    That’s sorted then! Very clear Rob. Thanks.


    • Rob Townsend 04 February 2016 / 16:33

      Ha! I think I was in a fairly no-nonsense mood when I watched the clip. None of this ‘ooh it’s problematic’ nonsense today! :-)

      Liked by 1 person

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