Exercise: Elizabeth McCausland article


Read the 1939 article on documentary photography by Elizabeth McCausland.

Write a short bullet list of McCausland’s main points in your learning log. Explain in your own words, in a single paragraph, why this article is relevant to this part of the course.


  • Documentary photography is not a fad but a sustained and necessary use of the medium
  • It is serious chronicling work, distanced from (but not claiming superiority to) more artistic and experimental genres of photography
  • Documentary photography faces outwards to the realities of the world rather than editing it out or projecting notions of beauty onto it
  • It uses the realist aesthetic to communicate wider truths e.g. gnarled woman’s hands = social destitution
  • Whether photography is art is unimportant in the context of documentary – it is what it is
  • “Today” (1939) people want truth rather than emotion, and documentary photography provides a source of visual truth, especially regarding hardships and inequality
  • Documentary photography has more in common with the works of Balzac and Dickens than it has with ‘art photography’
  • The indexicality and speed of photography make it the perfect medium for capturing scene of social inequality
  • Documentary photography is about the subject, never the photographer

Written in the golden age of documentary photography, this is a good summary of its basic principles: objectivity (“truth”), realism, subject-centricity and social focus. It’s almost a manifesto to follow (or challenge in future). It fits well therefore as a context-setter for the project entitled Legacy documentary for social change.


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