Essay on social documentary photography

The aim of social documentary photography is to depict and highlight social grievances and problems. Photo: Thomas Klingberg

Social documentary photography: meaning, origin & history, important representatives

What does social documentary photography mean?

Social documentary photography is a type of photography that deals with the recording and depiction of social issues and problems. It seeks to draw public attention to important social issues and problems and to contribute to change. Social documentary photography can be presented in different ways, for example as photo exhibitions, photo books or in print and online media.

Social documentary photography is an important tool for educating and understanding social processes and can play an important role in influencing the public and policy makers. It can also help to expose and name social grievances and injustices and thus contribute to their elimination.

Social documentary photography differs from other types of photography in that it focuses on portraying social issues and problems rather than on aesthetic or artistic aspects. It can also be considered a type of journalistic photography, as it seeks to draw the public’s attention to important social issues and to convey information.

History of social documentary photography

Social documentary photography has emerged throughout history as an important way to draw public attention to important social issues and problems.

The beginnings of social documentary photography date back to the mid-19th century, when photographers began documenting the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation on society. A well-known example is the photography of Jacob Riis, which showed the poverty and poor housing conditions in New York City in the late 19th century.

In the 1920s and 1930s, social documentary photography continued to develop as photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Lewis Hine began to document the effects of depression and unemployment on the population. These photographers often worked on behalf of government agencies or non-profit organisations and their work was often published in magazines and books to inform the public about social issues.

In the 1950s and 1960s, social documentary photography became an important tool in the fight against racism and injustice. Photographers such as Gordon Parks and James Karales documented the civil rights movement and the impact of discrimination on African Americans in the US.

In recent decades, social documentary photography has evolved to encompass issues such as war, refugees, environmental problems and human rights. Photographers such as Steve McCurry, Mary Ellen Mark, Sebastião Salgado and James Nachtwey have produced remarkable work in these areas.

Which photographers can be described as pioneers of social documentary photography?

There are some pioneers of social documentary photography who have made important contributions to the development of this form of photography and art. Some of the best known pioneers of social documentary photography include:

Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew was a British journalist, writer and social reformer best known for his studies of the lives of the poorest classes in Victorian England. He was born in London in 1812 and studied law. Mayhew worked as a journalist and writer and was the founder of the magazine “The Morning Chronicle”, in which he published articles on the lives of the poorest sections of the population. His studies offer a detailed insight into the lives of street traders, prostitutes, labourers and other people from the lower social classes of Victorian England and have provided important insights into the social conditions of the time. In the 1840s and 1850s, Mayhew took photographs of the poor districts of London and campaigned for the improvement of the living conditions of the poor. He also took photographs of the unemployed and campaigned for the improvement of their living conditions. Mayhew published his photographs in a book called London Labour and the London Poor, which became a bestseller and raised public awareness of poverty in London. Mayhew died in Hampstead, London in 1887.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange was an American photographer best known for her photographs of the Great Depression of the 1930s. She was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895 and studied art and photography in New York. Lange began working as a photographer in the 1920s and made a name for herself primarily through her photographs of the southern states of the USA. Commissioned by the Farm Security Administration, she photographed the effects of the Great Depression on the rural population and documented poverty and social change in America. Her photographs are characterised by their simplicity and documentary nature and have had a lasting impact on American photography. Dorothea Lange died in San Francisco in 1965. She is considered one of the best-known photographers in the USA and a pioneer of social documentary photography.

Dorothea Lange at artsy.net

Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis was a Danish journalist and photographer of the social documentary photography genre. Riis was born in Denmark in 1849 and moved to the USA at the age of 21, where he worked as a journalist. In the 1880s, Riis took photographs of the poor living conditions in the poor neighbourhoods of New York City. He campaigned to improve the living conditions of people in these areas and drew attention to the social problems of the time. Riis published his photos in a book called How the Other Half Lives, which became a bestseller and raised public awareness of poverty in the US. Riis was a pioneer of social documentary photography and helped shape the genre. He was an advocate for social justice and for improving people’s lives, and campaigned for reforms that helped reduce poverty in the US. Riis died in 1914 in Barre, Vermont.

Jacob Riis Museum

Lewis Hine

Hine wurde 1874 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, geboren und studierte Fotografie in New York City. In den 1900er Jahren machte Hine Fotos von Arbeitern und Kinderarbeitern in den USA. Er setzte sich für die Verbesserung der Arbeitsbedingungen und für das Verbot der Kinderarbeit ein und machte auf die sozialen Probleme der Zeit aufmerksam. Hine arbeitete für das National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), eine US-Regierungsbehörde, die sich für die Verbesserung der Lebensbedingungen von Kindern einsetzte. Er machte Fotos von Kindern, die in Fabriken und auf Baustellen arbeiteten, und setzte sich für Reformen ein, die dazu beitrugen, die Kinderarbeit in den USA zu verringern. Hine starb 1940 in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Lewis Hine on ICP

Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White was an American photographer best known for her work in social documentary photography and war photography. Bourke-White was born in New York City in 1904 and studied photography at Columbia University. In the 1930s, Bourke-White took photographs of the effects of the Great Depression in the USA. She campaigned to improve the living conditions of the unemployed and to fight poverty, drawing attention to the social problems of the time. Bourke-White also worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a US government agency that worked to improve the lives of farmers. She took photos of farmers and unemployed people affected by the economic crisis and worked to improve their living conditions.

Bourke-White was also one of the first women to take photographs for Life magazine. She took photos of important events and people of the time and became one of the most famous women photographers in the USA. Bourke-White died in 1971 in Stamford, Connecticut. She is also considered a pioneer of social documentary photography and one of the most important women photographers of the 20th century.

Margaret Bourke-White on ICP

John Gutmann

John Gutmann was a German-American photographer best known for his photographs of American culture in the 1930s and 1940s. He was born in 1905 in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland) and studied art, philosophy and psychology in Berlin. After being persecuted by the Nazis, he emigrated to the USA in 1933 and began working as a photographer. Gutmann photographed American culture and landscape and was particularly committed to the recognition of photography as an art form. He was a founding member of the Magnum photo agency and worked for various magazines such as “Life” and “Harper’s Bazaar”. Gutmann is considered one of the greatest pioneers of social documentary photography. Gutmann died in San Francisco in 1998.

John Gutmann on ICP

Walker Evans

Walker Evans was an American photographer best known for his photographs of the Great Depression of the 1930s. He was born in 1903 in St. Louis, Missouri and studied art history and architecture in New York. Evans began working as a photographer in the 1920s and made a name for himself primarily through his photographs of the southern states of the USA. Commissioned by the Farm Security Administration, he photographed the effects of the Great Depression on the rural population and documented poverty and social change in America. His photographs are characterised by their simplicity and documentary nature and have had a lasting impact on American photography. Walker Evans died in 1975 at the age of 71, in New Haven, Connecticut, USA.

Walker Evans on ICP

Willy Ronis

Willy Ronis was a French photographer best known for his photographs of the working class and everyday life in 20th century Paris. He was born in 1910 in Mühlhausen in Alsace and grew up in a Jewish family. After being persecuted by the National Socialists, he emigrated to France in 1933 and began working as a photographer. Ronis was a member of the Rapho photo agency and worked for various magazines such as “Picture Post” and “Life”. His photographs are characterised by their simplicity and naturalness and show the lives of workers, street vendors and other people from 20th century Paris. Willy Ronis died in Paris in 2009 at the age of 99. Ronis can be considered one of the most important representatives of the humanist photographer.

Willy Ronis Retrospective

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer best known for his work in social documentary photography and street photography. Cartier-Bresson was born in Chanteloup-en-Brie, France, in 1908 and studied art in Paris. In the 1930s and 1940s, Cartier-Bresson took photographs of the streets and people of Europe and was committed to portraying social and political issues. He also took photos of the unemployed and poor and campaigned for the improvement of their living conditions. Cartier-Bresson also worked for Life magazine and took photos of important events and people of the time. Cartier-Bresson died in Paris in 2004.

Henry Cartier-Bresson at MagnumPhotos

August Sander

August Sander was a German photographer who lived and worked in the early 20th century. He is best known for producing extensive photo essays of the German population in which he attempted to provide a comprehensive picture of German society. Sander was influenced by the social changes in Germany and Europe and his photographs depict people from different walks of life and occupations to show the diverse experiences and perspectives of the population. He also worked on other projects, including portraits of artists and writers, but his best known works are the photo essays he produced in the 1920s and 1930s. Sander died in Cologne on 20 April 1964 at the age of 84.

August Sander Foundation

Eugene Smith

Eugene Smith was an American photographer best known for his reportage-style photo series. He is considered one of the most important photographers of the 20th century and was especially known for his humanistic approaches. Smith was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1918 and studied at the University of Notre Dame. He began his career as a photographer at “Newsweek” and later worked for various magazines such as “Life” and “Look”. He also freelanced and produced several major photo series, including “Minamata” about the effects of industrial waste on a city in Japan and “Country Doctor” about the life of a country doctor in the US.

Smith was known for delving deeply into the subjects of his photo spreads and conducting extensive research. He was also known for being an advocate for social justice and for treating the people in his photographs with respect and empathy. He is considered one of the most important representatives of social documentary photography. Eugene Smith died in Tucson, Arizona, USA, in 1978 at the age of 59.

Eugene Smith at MagnumPhotos

Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus was an American photographer who became known primarily for her portraits of exceptional or marginalised people. She is considered one of the most important photographers of the 20th century and had a decisive influence on the understanding of portrait photography. Arbus was born in New York City in 1923 and grew up in a wealthy family. She began her career as a photographer in the 1950s, working first as a fashion photographer. Later she turned to portrait photography and mainly photographed people who were marginalised, such as circus performers, transsexuals and the disabled.

Arbus was known for giving her models a lot of time and working intensively with them to build trusting relationships. Her photographs are characterised by their intimacy and honesty, showing people who often remain hidden elsewhere. Arbus died in 1971 at the age of 48 in Westbeth Artists Housing, New York City, USA.

Diane Arbus, Gallery Fraenkel

Social documentary photography in recent history

Social documentary photography has also played an important role in raising awareness and communicating social problems and grievances in recent decades, addressing many important issues, including poverty, wars, discrimination, pollution and human rights violations. Through the creation of photographic products, their work has helped to educate the public about these issues and to record them simply. The following representatives of this genre have had and continue to have a great influence and are considered the best known and most important photographers of this genre.

Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark was an American photographer best known for her documentary photography. She was best known for her portraits of people on the margins of society, especially the homeless, prostitutes and circus and carnival performers. She also worked as a photographer for magazines such as LIFE, Rolling Stone and The New York Times and published several photography books. Mark was born on 20 March 1940 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and passed away on 25 May 2015 in New York City.

Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian photographer and sociologist. He is best known for his documentary photography, which focuses on social and political issues, environmental issues and the human condition. Salgado has published numerous photography books and exhibitions of his work have been shown in museums and galleries worldwide. He has received numerous awards, including the World Press Photo Award and the Hasselblad Foundation Award.

Instagram Profile Sebastião Salgado

Eugene Richards

Eugene Richards is an American photographer and author who focuses primarily on social and political issues. He is known for his intense, haunting photographs that address issues such as poverty, racism and disease. Richards has published numerous photography books and his work has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. He has won numerous awards, including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the National Magazine Award.

Official Website Eugene Richards

James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey is an American photographer and documentary filmmaker who focuses primarily on issues of war, poverty, oppression and human suffering. He is best known for his moving and evocative photographs taken during his many trips to war zones and poverty-stricken areas around the world. Nachtwey is a member of the renowned Magnum Photos photo agency and has received numerous awards for his work, including five World Press Photo Awards and the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal Award. He is also the author of two books and has produced several documentaries.

James Nachtwey – National Geographic

Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin is an American photographer best known for her photographs of the underground art and club scene of the 1980s and 1990s. She was born in Washington D.C. in 1953 and grew up in a dysfunctional home. Goldin became interested in photography in the 1970s and made a name for herself primarily through her photographs of the LGBTQ community and nightclub life. Her photographs are characterised by their intimacy and honest look at life and have had a lasting impact on documentary photography. Nan Goldin now lives and works in New York and Paris.

Nan Goldin on Instagram

Social documentary photography should expose social grievances

Social documentary photography makes social inequality visible. Shots from Moscow. Photos: Thomas Klingberg

What is the significance of social documentary photography in arts?

Social documentary photography is an art form that deals with the depiction of social realities and social problems. Its aim is to draw the public’s attention to important issues and to help address and solve them. Social documentary photography therefore has an important role in art as an instrument of social enlightenment and commitment to social justice. It can also serve as a form of artistic self-expression and engagement with social issues.

What is the status of social documentary photography in Germany?

In Germany, social documentary photography has a high status, both in the art scene and among the general public. It is shown by many museums and galleries and also repeatedly finds its way into exhibitions that deal with social issues. Social documentary photography also plays an important role in the press, especially in magazines and journals that deal with social and political issues. In Germany, there are also many photographers who have specialised in social documentary photography and whose work has received international attention.

There have been and still are many photographers in Germany who have dedicated themselves to social documentary photography and whose work has received international attention. Some well-known examples are:

  • August Sander: One of the best-known German photographers who worked with social documentary photography. He is best known for his portrait series “People of the 20th Century”, in which he portrayed various social classes and occupational groups.
  • Thomas Hoepker: A German photographer who mainly deals with social and political issues. He is known for his reportages and documentaries from all over the world.
  • Michael Wolf: A German photographer who mainly focuses on the photography of cities and urban spaces. He is known for his photographs of Hong Kong and other metropolises.
  • Kai Wiedenhöfer: A German photographer who focuses on the effects of wars and conflicts on the people and regions affected. He is known for his photo reportages from the Middle East and other crisis areas.

Social documentary photography in Germany

Social documentary photography in Germany. Photograph of a homeless woman in Berlin-Wedding, Leopoldplatz. Photo: Thomas Klingberg

The influence of social documentary photography on society

Social documentary photography has an important impact on society by drawing attention to grievances and social problems and can help to create public awareness and understanding of these issues. Through the dissemination of images in the media and on social networks, photographs can have a strong emotional impact and attract the attention of policy makers and the public. Social documentary photography can also help change people’s attitudes and opinions. It can provide perspectives that would otherwise not be visible and help people to stand up for the rights and concerns of others.

Furthermore, social documentary photography can also be used as a tool to change structures and systems. It can help make governments and other organisations aware of problems and work to solve them. Overall, social documentary photography therefore also has an important role in Germany in raising awareness of grievances and supporting social movements, and can thus make an important contribution to shaping society.

Social documentary photography in Asia & Africa

In many countries in Asia & Africa, there are photographers who deal with social and political issues and depict the realities of people affected by poverty, injustice, conflicts and other challenges. Unfortunately, social documentary photography from Asia and Africa still receives too little attention in the relevant literature in Europe and the USA.

Some well-known Asian photographers who deal with social documentary issues are, for example, Raghu Rai from India, Liu Heung Shing from China and Burhan Ozbilici from Turkey. They have provided important insights into social conditions and living conditions in Asia and addressed important social issues.

Social documentary photography in Africa also has a long tradition and has documented important social changes and events in the region. Some well-known African photographers who have dealt with social documentary topics are, for example, Seif Sharif Hamad from Tanzania, James Barnor from Ghana and Zanele Muholi from South Africa.

Criticism on social documentary photography

Social documentary photography, which is concerned with documenting social problems and the living conditions of disadvantaged groups, will not always be uncontroversial. Some criticisms often levelled at this type of photography are:

  • Voyeurism: Critics argue that photographers who document social problems using social documentary photography are in a voyeuristic mindset and produce their photographs merely as a sensation for the audience.
  • Exploitation: Other critics argue that photographers documenting social problems are exploiting themselves at the expense of the people they photograph, exploiting their suffering for the entertainment of the audience.
  • Stereotyping: Another criticism is that photographers stereotype certain groups and ignore their uniqueness and individual experiences.
  • Powerlessness: Some critics argue that photographers documenting social problems have no real power to solve the problems they show and that their photographs therefore have no real impact.

It is important to note that these criticisms do not apply to all photographers who document social problems, and that there are also many photographers who make a conscious effort to show these problems in a responsible way.

Homeless person in Düsseldorf

Homeless person in Düsseldorf. Photo: Thomas Klingberg

Literature on the subject of social documentary photography

If you are interested in the subject of social documentary photography and would like to learn more about it, there are a number of books that deal with the subject:

  • “Socially Engaged Photography: From Inclusion to Empowerment” by Maria Antonella Pelizzari and James E. Young: This book explores the role of photography in addressing social and political issues and describes how photographers can use photography as a tool for social change.
  • “The Photography of Crisis: The Photojournalistic Field of Disaster” by John Taylor: This book explores the role of photography in documenting disasters and crises and describes how photographers portray these events and how their images influence public opinion.
  • “The Photography of Inequality” by Wendy Ewald: In this book, Wendy Ewald examines the role of photography in depicting inequality and discrimination and describes how photographers address these issues in their work.
  • “Documentary Photography: A Very Short Introduction” by Jo Spence and Patricia Holland: This book provides an introduction to the subject of documentary photography and describes how photographers portray reality and how their images influence the public.
  • “Vision & Dokumentation. Social-Documentary Photography of the 1930s in the USA”. In his book, Detlef Kulessa explores the question of how social documentary photography of the 1930s in the USA reflected the social conditions and political ideals of the time. To this end, he analyses the images of well-known photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn and shows how they depicted the reality of everyday life in the USA and how they contributed to the discussion of social issues.
  • “Fotografie als Waffe: Zur Geschichte und Ästhetik der Sozialfotografie”, by Günter Roland, is a non-fiction book that deals with the history and aesthetics of social photography.
  • “Klassen-Bilder: Social Documentary Photography” is a book that deals with social documentary photography and its importance for enlightening and changing social conditions. The book presents a selection of photographs taken throughout history to make social grievances and injustices visible. The photographs are accompanied by texts explaining the backgrounds and the significance of the images.

These are just a few examples of books on the subject of social documentary photography. There are many more resources dealing with this topic that can be useful for further information and inspiration.



This article was posted on April 22, 2019




© THOMAS KLINGBERG





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