Documentary Photographers

I was never quite sure what kind of photographs I really like the most until I began shooting for my own project. I loved being in the role of the observer and to document those moments with my camera. Everything in front of me was real, people were real, their surroundings were real, or the better word: natural. Nothing was staged and I loved the feeling of capturing something beautiful.
During my research about documentary photography, I came across different photographers one should know and two of them I want to introduce to you now.

The first photographer is Diane Arbus. I read about her from her book “Diane Arbus – an aperture monography”. There she talks about her photographs and mostly about her experience and opinions which I find the most intriguing and which helps me the most to learn more about documentary photography.
Diane Arbus likes the unusual, the unknown and the Freaks. The camera is her licence to ask people about their interesting story and people will open up to her – because they want the attention and they want to be heard.
At first, when she began her career as a photographer, she thought that there were too many people on the planet to take a picture of, so she tried to photograph the generalized human. It was her teacher who told her that a good photograph is not the general human but the specific one. And those special people fascinated Diane Arbus the most.
Photography is about reality, it captures the fact unlike cinema which is more the fiction. Arbus explained it with a scene wherein two people lying in bed get more intimate. The difference between watching it in a film or looking at it in a photograph is that in a photograph one cannot ignore the fact that actually there was someone who was right there in this moment and took a picture of it whereas in the cinema the fact that there is a group of people present during this scene is completely forgotten.
One important thing in photography for Arbus is that one should not arrange the subject but arrange oneself around the subject. Just choose your subject and everything else will develop. Arbus explains that “[y]ou don’t put into a photograph what’s going to come out. Or, vice versa, what comes out is not what you put in”. What she means is that the unintended pictures are mostly the best ones. Equally, there is something Arbus likes to call “the gap between intention and effect”. She applied it to the human behaviour and appearance. People dress up and behave in a way they want to be seen, to be recognized, but most time the other ones are seeing something else. In other words: the intended impression never makes it effect.
All these things can be seen in Arbus’s pictures above.

The second photographer is Susan Meiselas. I read about her in “Engaged Observers – Documentary Photography since the Sixties” and this book focuses on her pictures from Nicaragua June 1978 – 1979. Meiselas was there before, during and after the revolution and documented the revolution with her camera. Meiselas combines with her pictures journalism and art and created historical narratives with it.
At first when she arrived in Nicaragua, Meiselas had no plan on what she would be photographing there. Her camera was “an excuse to be someplace [she] otherwise do[es]n’t belong”. When she learned about America’s role or help in Nicaragua, she felt the responsibility to let other people know about it. That was how she stayed there and documented history. She shot bravely pictures for the future to look at the past, always with Robert Capa’s advice “if your pictures are not good enough, you’re not close enough” in her mind. Meiselas decided to shoot everything in colour because the colours expressed the feelings those people had during the revolution.
It is her quest to show the whole world what happened and to let everyone know. She wants to create visual history and then to bring the pictures back to the places they were taken.


ABBOTT, B., 2010. Engaged observers: Documentary photography since the sixties. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum

pp. 120-135
ARBUS, D. and M. ISRAEL eds., 1978. Diane Arbus: An aperture monograph. 9th ed. New York: Millerton, N.Y. [Aperture, 1972]

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