Research point: socially committed B&W photographers


Do your own research into the work of the socially committed B&W photographers discussed so far, both British (Exit Photography Group, Chris Killip, Nick Danziger, Bill Brandt) and American (Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine). Was this social documentary work their prime focus? How does it fit with other work done by these photographers?

Make notes in your learning log or blog.


I’ve already looked at Exit Photography Group and Brandt in recent posts so will focus on the other names here.

Chris Killip

Killip (b.1946) is best known for In Flagrante (1988), a study of the disappearing coastal working communities in the north east of England – recently revisited and updated as In Flagrant Two (2016). For the update Killip was keen to correct the widespread misunderstanding that the set was a specific critique of ‘Thatcher’s Britain’, as the series was started in 1973, six years before she came to power.


Social documentary work has been the core of his output, but shot through with a more personal sensibility. Killip lived in the communities he photographed, got to know the people and kept in touch for decades after. Whilst making a political point about the demise of British industrial communities he was also telling stories about individuals who had become friends.

An interesting aspect of the 2016 reissue is that Killip removed an introductory essay by John Berger and Sylvia Grant that he felt had imposed too much of an interpretation on the images, and the new version has minimal text barring historical facts (Time 2016). Killip wants the images to stand alone, which is a different approach to that taken by other documentarians (such as the Exit group) who worked with images and text juxtaposed for mutually-supporting messages.

Nick Danziger

There are some interesting parallels between Danziger (b.1958) and Brandt. Like Brandt, his view on Britain was that of a semi-outsider, as although born in London he was brought up in Monaco and Switzerland. His seminal work, The British (2002), has similarities with Brandt’s The English at Home in its aim to depict the lives of both the upper and lower classes.

Unlike Killip, he prefers descriptive text to provide some meaningful context for his images.

Social documentary doesn’t form the whole of his output, though it is a significant part. He’s also known as a travel photographer and often works in colour. One recent project that fits in with his social documentary work is Revisited (2015) where he returned to impoverished communities in eight countries around the world that he had first photographed 10 years earlier. His aim was to get beyond the ‘in-and-out’ nature of much documentary photography and examine the long-term developments in the lives of those he had photographed.

Jacob Riis

Denmark-born Riis (1849-1914) emigrated to New York in the 1870s, initially as a police reporter, and had first-hand experience of the slum neighbourhoods. He made it his goal to campaign against the social inequality of the time – he did not consider himself primarily a photographer; to him the camera was a means to an end.

His most famous work How the Other Half Lives (1890) is one of the first examples of published social documentary, and in the words of Clarke (1997: 147) “associates documentary photography with a moral and radical vocabulary”, setting an early benchmark for what documentary photography can achieve.

His style was objective in the extreme, documentary in the literal sense. He took pictures without permission – the subjects often heard men approaching, saw a flash of light (he was a pioneer in the use of flash) and heard them scurrying away – and in almost all cases the subjects do not face the camera.

Riis had a rough and ready style that disregarded the technical norms of the time (composition, posing etc) and insisted on showing the previously unseen truth of how the poor lived and died. His visceral, uncompromising approach would be softened by Hine and others in subsequent years before being reclaimed and magnified by contemporary social documentary photographers decades later.

Lewis Hine

Although often mentioned in the same breath as Riis, Hine was altogether more nuanced. Where Riis was the objective photographer thrusting blunt images of poverty in people’s faces, Hine took a more humanist and hopeful approach.

Hine was a professional photographer who knew how to make aesthetically pleasing images, and he was hired by the US National Child Labor Committee specifically to record the use of children in the workplace. He applied a more thoughtful approach to his work, and spoke to the subjects to find out more about them before taking their photograph.

His images come across as less ‘angry’ than those of Riis, and display a deeper understanding of the complexity of social issues. While Riis shot his subjects as though inmates in a human zoo – emphasising their ‘otherness‘ – Hine appealed to the viewer to empathise with the children in his images.

Hine applies more subjectivity to structuring his message, as though he understands how to affect his audience better than Riis did. Clarke (1997) puts it well:

“Hine’s great strength, however, was to inform each image with a complex (but seemingly effortless) awareness of the multiple contingencies which informed and controlled an individual’s life.” (Clarke 1997: 147)

This is maybe the crux of the difference to Riis: Hine was concerned with individuals. The subjects are never simply ciphers to be exploited to make a point, they are people. One gets a greater sense of the horrors of social injustice from Hine’s work as he is more successful in personalising the problem being examined.


Though their approaches may have varied, most of the photographers discussed here and in the preceding posts were committed to social reform-based photography, first and foremost. Brandt eschewed the mantle of social documentary photographer (Campany et al 2006: 54) and comes across as more of an artist-anthropologist than a reformist. Danziger mixes socially committed work with more ‘mainstream’ travelogue work.

An interesting observation is the tendency for outsiders to be able to see the potential in the subject matter (Danziger, Riis and Brandt, not to mention Robert Frank who I will cover later in the course). Maybe it’s the more objective eye that one has if one isn’t born into the social milieu being chronicled.

Sources (accessed 18/04/2016) (accessed 18/04/2016) (accessed 18/04/2016) (accessed 18/04/2016) (accessed 18/04/2016)

Barson, T., Campany, D. and Morris, L. (eds.) (2006) Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now . Liverpool: Tate Publishing.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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