In 1955, 36-year-old photographer William Eugene Smith travelled to Pittsburgh on what was meant to be a three-week assignment, but which became a year-long, amphetamine-fuelled photographic binge.
He came away with 17,000 images. Later he relocated to Japan, documenting the consequences of devastating industrial pollution, in the process facing extreme violence from the corporate wrongdoers he exposed. He was, in the words of one writer, “the man who tried to document everything”.
Yet despite his revered place in photographic history, Smith also broke nearly every rule in the book: posing his subjects, manipulating his prints, and often becoming dangerously over-involved in his stories.
He was principled yet professionally difficult, frequently burning bridges and alienating those around him – even as he depended on them for his livelihood.
When asked by one interviewer why he so persistently ignored many of the fundamental tenets of documentary photography, he tersely shot back: “I didn’t write the rules – why should I follow them?”
Forty years after his death, W. Eugene Smith remains a measure of what documentary photography can be at its best. He had little patience for his own limitations, or the limits of his medium, and could overcome anything in pursuit of a story.
Not only did he prove that successful photographers can break the rules, he showed that indeed they must. And that’s more true today than ever.
The ‘regulations’ that govern documentary photography are hand-me-downs from journalism, carry-overs from the far simpler landscape of the last century.
But documentary is not journalism, and we are not in Kansas anymore. Some rules might have been conceived in order to protect photographers and their subjects, but many restrict the medium, serve vested interests and prevent photographers from revealing the critical issues that are shaping our modern world.
Abstract forces like corporate malfeasance, cyber-warfare and climate change make demands of visual storytelling – demands which can only be met if photographers refuse to play by the rules inherited from their forebears, rules which some of them did not deign to follow in any case.
Here, then, we offer eight commandments of documentary photography – eight rules which we could do with smashing – and the photographers who are helping to do just that.
#1 The Rule of Objectivity
“To the utmost of my ability, I have let truth be the prejudice,” wrote W. Eugene Smith. Documentary photographers are not journalists, they owe no loyalty to objectivity, if such a thing can ever exist.
Even filmmaker John Grierson, who first coined the term ‘documentary’ and was one of the medium’s fiercest proponents, had little time for feigned objectivity, writing that, “I look on the cinema as a pulpit and use it as a propagandist.”
Some contemporary documentary photographers see the camera in the same way. French-Venezuelan photographer Mathieu Asselin’s long-term investigation into the devastating legacy of the Monsanto corporation pulls no punches.
Introduced to the story by his father – an “activist by heart, spirit and actions” – Asselin began a five-year odyssey to explore the company’s toxic chemical legacy.
He had no interest in a right to reply. “I’ve never contacted Monsanto to have their point of view,” he says. “No statement from them can justify the crimes against humanity and the planet.”
The resulting body of work, exhibited recently at the Rencontres d’Arles festival in France, is a polemic in the best sense: a ringing indictment of corporate malpractice.
#2 The Rule of Audience
Photographers often speak hopefully of their photographs reaching huge audiences, of shaping public opinion and perhaps in the process shaping policy.
This is fine if democracy works, but in a world where elections are won and lost at the whim of fake news and manipulations of foreign governments, that aspiration can seem naïve.
The implications for democracy might be dark but, in some situations, influencing the right few people is more important than reaching many wrong ones.
This was clear to the American photographer Lewis Hine, who went undercover to document the exploitation of child labour in the early 20th century.
As the photo historian Daile Kaplan describes, Hine “assumed a variety of personas – including Bible salesman, postcard salesman and industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery” in order to infiltrate factories, mines and other locations where children were at work. His photographs were then used by the National Child Labor Committee to push for a change in the law.
British documentary photographer Mark Neville develops projects that are rarely intended for audiences already well-versed in the form. For a project about Port Glasgow, Neville distributed the completed book to every household in that town to “undermine this hierarchical, class-based relationship between images and their audience”.
Some of the books appeared on eBay, others were burned by residents unhappy with their depiction. But that didn’t deter Neville from his mission. For Deeds Not Words, he documented the consequences of an industrial disaster in an English town, then sent the book out to officials with the power to prevent a repeat of the disaster elsewhere.
#3 The Rule of Manipulation
Another journalistic inheritance is the rule that forbids photographers from using digital editing to manipulate the meaning of their images.
The intent here might be good, to guard against unscrupulous photographers like Steve McCurry, who may be more interested in professional accolades than the integrity of the stories they set out to tell.
McCurry, a long-revered photojournalist, was revealed in 2016 to have been exhibiting and selling prints which had been heavily manipulated to remove elements. Responding to the uproar, McCurry quickly claimed that he was in fact “not a photojournalist”.
What such prohibitions ignore, however, is that almost every stage of the photographic process is a manipulation, and is open to no less egregious misrepresentations.
To paraphrase the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, you don’t need to manipulate an image to mislead an audience; you simply need to change the caption. And yet used openly, in the right context, manipulation can reveal truths that a single image alone never could.
When Dutch photographer Alice Wielinga travelled to North Korea, she found her ability to photograph in the secretive state severely curtailed.
“I felt that, with mere documenting, I wasn’t able to tell the story as I was experiencing it,” she says of the stage-managed excursions to which journalist-visitors are subjected.
Her response was to digitally merge her photographs of official North Korea propaganda with her own images of workers and decaying factories.
“I see propaganda and reality as two sides of the same coin,” she says. “Propaganda is an essential part of everyday life in North Korea, and because of that a reality in itself.”
#4 The Rule of Reality
John Grierson, the originator of documentary cinema, called his practice the “creative treatment of actuality”, but later generations of filmmakers recognised that documentary could do more than just react to reality; it could also anticipate the future.
Filmmakers like British director Peter Watkins made documentaries about nuclear war and the slide of democracy into tyranny – events which were then, and still are, yet to transpire (but have been described as an eerie predictor of the rise of Donald Trump).
Newer talents like the American-British director Joshua Oppenheimer blend fact and fiction, candid and staged, to create films of deep, disturbing insight. His 2012 film The Act of Killing features Indonesian death squad members re-enacting their own atrocities.
Documentary photography, by contrast, has been slower to foray into fiction as a way of exploring true stories that aren’t unfolding before our eyes in real time.
But a cluster of risk-takers have recognised the power of intervention – staging and re-enactment – as a powerful storytelling tool.
In 2012, Cristina de Middel won acclaim for The Afronauts, a pioneering blend of fact and fiction that dug up Zambia’s forgotten attempt to join the space race, while also reflecting on European Afropessimism.
“Check your facts, don’t move anything, just witness whatever is going on – these rules are not relevant anymore,” she says.
“Not because there are no longer ethical professionals who can handle that but because the world is not what it used to be. Conflicts are not what they used to be. Lots of things have changed the game that make the classic rules of documentary very difficult to follow.”
Ecuadorian photographer Paola Paredes did something equally bold when she decided to embed herself within the frame. After learning about secret facilities in Ecuador for the ‘treatment’ of LGBT people, Paredes used witness statements to recreate what was happening behind closed doors, going undercover without a camera to see it for herself.
“What shocked me the most was when I saw the girls,” she says. “They had been forced to wear makeup and my informants had described it perfectly: bright red lips, pink cheeks and blue eye-shadow.”
In the images she sits centre-stage, reflecting the dark possibility that, had her family been less accepting, these facilities may have also been her fate.
#5 The Rule of Technicality
Pioneering photographers like Hurley and Hine were pushing against inferior technology to produce technically exquisite images, but the camera technology of today means the real skill and the real statement sometimes lies in taking a wilfully ‘bad’ image.
Where many photographers stick rigidly to the rules taught in camera clubs, some of the brightest among a new generation express themselves lyrically, skilfully throwing technique into the wind. Blur, heavy grain and off-focus all become tools of creative expression.
In British-Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy’s impressionistically rendered photographs of the Egyptian Revolution, long exposures express a very personal vision of a monumental event.
Lacking the clarity of a conventional documentary image, her work hints at the uncertainty engulfing the country at a time of change.
“It was about responding spontaneously to the events around me,” she says. “The work has become known as a book about the revolution but in reality, it was never intended this way. I was always photographing my Egypt – the country I know from childhood memories.”
Pushing the ISO of his camera beyond acceptable limits, his briefly glimpsed subjects are fragmented by digital noise, creating the sensation of viewing voyeuristically through a grainy surveillance system.
#6 The Rule of Ownership
Our world is a raging storm of images. Photo uploads to Facebook exceed 300 million per day, with Instagram seeing around 90 million.
As a photographer, it can feel futile to keep adding to this visual blizzard, when so much can be said with those that already exist. The solution, for some, lies in a creative attitude to the old-fashioned idea of ownership and copyright.
For seven years the French collector Thomas Sauvin harvested film negatives from Beijing’s vast dump, buying them from specialist scavengers who recycle the negatives for the valuable silver they contain.
In his hunt, Sauvin has created an archive of a million images that offers a unique insight into a pivotal period in modern Chinese history, from the tail end of Mao’s cultural revolution, to the economic success story of modern China.
Belgian artist Mishka Henner, meanwhile, works with images he finds online to dissect the motivations and power of their original producers.
In 51 US Military Outposts, he uses satellite imagery of US military bases around the world to probe the extent of this modern American empire. His interest in these images, he says, lies in the fact that “the people who are running the show, that’s the stuff they’re working with.”
#7 The Rule of the Camera
When Canadian photographer Donald Weber was a child, his grandfather told him a story. It was about a small group of World War II soldiers who secretly travelled to northern France to test whether its beaches were suitable for the D-Day landings.
Decades later, Weber embarked on a lengthy exploration into the beaches of Normandy, working with scientists to create images of ‘war sand’ – microscopic metallic fragments of the war which still reside in the sediment of those same French beaches where scenes of fierce fighting occurred 70 years ago.
In doing this, he brings to light the invisible traces of conflict that linger on, demonstrating that cameras are no longer the only thing that produces photographs.
“I don’t think I have ever actively searched for alternative methods nor felt beholden to a certain ‘decorum’ of documentary practice,” says Weber.
“I have always understood, or at least attempted to understand, the close communion one must have with story. When the story is served by all the elements, an opening up of technique and creative possibility in how that story gets told is laid out for you.”
Indeed, the medium is now morphing and expanding into strange new terrain that also encompasses data visualisations, algorithmic sorting and virtual experiences. Photography is becoming much more than a technique, or a piece of equipment. It is a way of viewing and thinking about the world.
When British artist Liz Orton discovered medical images from treatment that her mother had recently undergone, she expected to find them cold and abstract. “[But] I was confronted by her in every dimension,” she says.
This was the starting point for a body of work which sees Orton collaborate with patients and medical specialists to explore the implications of new medical technologies – machines producing images often for the use of other machines, and advanced algorithms which are starting to supplant human clinicians.
“The body is becoming part of this new informational economy,” says Orton, whose visceral reaction to a utilitarian image is a reflection on the relationship between living bodies and their representations.
#8 The Rule of Rule Breaking
Many rules are there to be broken with abandon, but some are not. When it comes to working on sensitive topics and with vulnerable subjects, the expectations and standards have never been higher.
But good practice, ethical practice, more often stems not from any formal rules of documentary, but from a photographer’s inner clarity about what is right and what is wrong. In a treacherous world, photographers find increasingly inventive ways to involve and protect their subjects.
To offer a glimpse inside the cloistered Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and particularly to show the concealed lives of Saudi women, Olivia Arthur devised innovative solutions to anonymise her subjects, including printing her photographs and reshooting them in the glare of a camera flash, blowing out her subject’s faces.
“I liked the solution because of the lightness. It doesn’t feel heavy and negative and also because its a bit ambiguous,” says Arthur.
“You can show some of their face without revealing their identity. That represented the whole work very well, where the lines between what you can see and what you can’t are not always clear.”
Similarly, when working in the Xinjiang province of China, Carolyn Drake found members of the Uyghur ethnic group too afraid of repercussions to speak to her openly. Instead she invited them to collaborate, by drawing directly onto her images, which became the book Wild Pigeon.
As the novelist Albert Camus wrote, “I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules.”
If there were ever a moment to reconsider the rules of documentary photography, now is the time. The visual landscape is uneven, with some areas hardly illuminated, and others completely over-exposed.
We need to constantly innovate new ways of seeing and thinking in response to issues that escape or avoid the camera’s lens, new issues like ecological collapse and drone warfare.
The old ways are sometimes still the best, but to remain uncritically wedded to them is a mistake which stops documentary photography from realising its full potential.
We need to be storytellers, activists, advocates and innovators first of all, and we should be guardians of the past last.
Lewis Bush is a writer and lecturer at the London College of Communications, specialising in documentary photography.