Assignment 2: “but is it documentary?”

I’ve had a nagging concern at the back of my mind since I started thinking about this assignment.

The brief includes the following pointer:

“This assignment aims to help you develop your ability to conceptualise your thoughts and communicate your ideas visually. The emphasis is on effectively translating concepts into visual products.” (course notes: 58)

My immediate reaction was: this doesn’t sound much like documentary?

In fact, the best (I almost said ‘only’ but that’s not true) way to deliver this assignment is to consciously construct a set of images.

My instinctive understanding of documentary photography is about capturing rather than constructing – observing what’s already there, not imposing a preconceived idea. This is more about starting with a concept and producing an image to match the concept. It seems to be the ‘opposite way round’ to documentary photography…!

However, I am getting over this.

For a start, I appreciate that not all assignments on a documentary photography course need to be delivered using a documentary photography approach; it can be, as in this case, about developing or honing a particular skill that is useful for documentary photography.

Secondly, it reassured me that the response from other students has been wholeheartedly to construct images – so either the dilemma didn’t occur to them or they got over it.

Most importantly, I was exposed to interesting ideas about the necessary veracity of ‘documentary photography’ images in the essay ‘Some Truths Cannot be Told Except as Fiction’ in Street Photography Now (Howarth & McLaren 2010). It uses historic examples such as Brassaï and Robert Doisneau, as well as contemporary practitioners like Jeff Wall and Mirko Martin, who staged images to varying degrees. Wall’s Mimic (1982), for example, is a recreation of a scene that he had witnessed previously.

jeff wall mimic.jpg
Mimic, 1982 – Jeff Wall

Some photographers are therefore happy to blur fact and fiction in the name of communicating a ‘wider truth’.

The essay quotes Garry Winogrand going one step further than recreation: “If one could imagine it, one could set it up” (Howarth & McLaren 2010: 183).

The French-Algerian photographer Mohamed Bourouissa, mentioned early on in the course, works like this, in projects such as Périphérique (2009).

La Rencontre, 2008 – Mohamed Bourouissa

Bourouissa has said: “What I am after is that very fleeting tenth of a second when the tension is at its most extreme.” (Prix Pictet 2012), and he doesn’t worry about missing it as he believes it’s valid to construct it – others may disagree.


In the end, my concern has been allayed. It has however been very useful to think through these issues in advance of any further work on the assignment.


Howarth, S and McClaren, S (eds.) (2010) Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Mohamed Bourouissa (accessed 13/05/2016)


4 thoughts on “Assignment 2: “but is it documentary?”

  1. Anne Bryson 14 May 2016 / 09:37

    Very interesting to read your thinking on the Rob, particularly as I have this to come. You are right, thinking issue through or for me, writing them down in advance helps to clarify, crystallise and allay fears.


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