“Street photography vs documentary photography” – Why photojournalism and Street Photography are...

“Street photography vs documentary photography” – Why photojournalism and Street Photography are not the same thing.

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Street Photography vs Documentary Photography

Introduction

Street photography, known also as candid photography, is the photography done in public places and is conducted for the art of enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents. When talking about street photography we don’t necessary need the presence of the street or the urban environment. Street photography can be done just as well in rural areas or public buildings; while documentary photography usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle events or environments both significant and relevant to history and historical events as well as everyday life. Documentary is typically covered in professional photojournalism, or real life reportage, but it may also be an amateur, artistic, or academic pursuit.

So street photography is not the same thing as documentary photography. Although they are linked, and some would say that they are similar to a certain point, they are certainly not the same thing. So, until which point could we say they are connected?

Documentary photography vs street photography

Upon first look they both are in a way a form of a social documentary, portraying the here and the now – people, places, cultures. But if we look at each one separately we notice the various differences, some obvious and some more subtle than others.

Documentary photography focuses on telling us the true story, has a clear storyline, takes place in a specific place depending on the documentary topic and the photographer restricts himself by photographing only what is related and relevant to his theme, trying as hard as possible to reveal the truth, of course the truth that is revealed is through his own artistic perspective, no doubt about that, but it is still more objective thaen street photography.

Street photography on the other hand tends to be more free, spontaneous, not caring to reveal or prove anything and for this reason the photographer can show more of his artistic and creative side.

“Documentary focuses on telling us the true story while street photography tries to make its own story”

Street photography is a spontaneous act that takes place sometimes without premeditation, without a previous plan and it is mostly candid. What does candid mean? It means that the subject is not aware of the fact that it is being photographed. Most street photographers shoot people without them being aware. Like for example Vivian Maier, this iconic street photographer did most of her shots in a spontaneous way, just feeling the decisive moment.

Vivian Maier - Photo of woman shot through a bus window
Vivian Maier

Of course it is not always a spontaneous act. Sometimes the street photographer can find a place that he likes and wait there even for hours for something to happen. He waits in a spot for the perfect subject to walk into the scene and then takes his shot.

An iconic photograph shot in such manner was done by legendary photographer Henri Cartier Bresson in Greece, where he waited for hours for something to happen in a simply perfect location, having the perfect frame in his mind. And after a while it happened. A young girl ran into the chosen frame and made Cartier Bresson’s picture possible.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Siphnos, Greece (Girl on Stairs)
Henri Cartier-Bresson
Siphnos, Greece (Girl on Stairs)

Documentarists on the other hand establish bonds with their subjects, they get to know them, they ask questions and try to find out more about their story in order to shape the documentary, unlike street photographers who mostly photograph people that they don’t know. Street photographers don’t ask for permission for taking pictures of people on the street, that would ruin the whole idea of street photography but documentarist do. Their photos are based on the stories they want to unveil. For example documentarist Mary Ellen Mark had gained much trust from her subjects when she was documenting the life of prostitutes in India, or of those who worked in the circus. And like her are a lot of great documentarists that traveled and settled to a place just trying to better figure out the story that they wanted to document. Well known photographers documented the most intimate and precious moments of their subjects, and that needed patience, time and a special kind of bond.

Mary Ellen Mark Flakland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay
Mary Ellen Mark
Flakland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay

While a street photographer does not familiarize himself with a subject and creates his own surreal reality, a documentary photographer finds himself deeply interested and motivated to research his subjects and their situation and to hear the evolution of their story.

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth” – Pablo Picasso

Street photography is not interested in capturing the truth but focuses instead on the creative power of a photographer that can generate relationships within the frame that my not exist in reality. It stimulates the imagination through intentional juxtapositions, exaggerated angles, shadows and everything that would take a frame out of the ordinary day to day life and turn it into a surreal composition. So street photography is not concerned by life itself or the truth. However, there is the possibility that in time, a street photograph can gain documentary value due to the fact that various elements in the shot can be linked to a certain period in time.

Another difference is that while street photography focuses on the “decisive moment” being based on the unexpected and unpredictable, documentary focuses on the objective presentation of an ongoing activity that can take place through the course of a specific amount of time, ranging to anything from a few seconds to years.

Conclusion

Street photography and documentary photography are basically not the same thing as we explained previously. Even if they are linked somehow they are so different in many ways. In time photographers, amateurs as well as professional photographers will get more and more used to this difference. My worries are that for now not all know these differences and they mix up terminology as well as styles. What are your thoughts about this topic? Write in the comments below.

18 COMMENTS

  1. I am not at all sure there is a definitive separation of the two. The first thing that occurred to me is that I wonder if Vivian Maier knew that she was a Street Photographer? At the time (60’s?) she did her work it was undoubtedly Street Photography, but now it may be considered Documentary because she recorded an era; after all the definition of the term documentary is “using pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject”.

  2. At the dawn of the 20th century the films became faster and the machines lighter. At that time, and mainly because of the change in the medium, the role of the amateur photographer is upgraded and took another meaning (besides creating memos). Lartigue’s photos, for example, are considered as the first photos in which events, created meanings – narratives. This is followed by the 20s, 30s and 40s, using photography to describe poverty, immigration, crisis and documentary creation. Documenting the pain and tension of everyday life mainly with the photos of the so-called great masters, Bresson and others, showed the power of the medium when the photographer can move with the camera in hand by creating, choosing and presenting himself the theme, not the camera. A new dialectical approach was achieved to define the relationship of man and machine and man with art.

    Immediacy and easy access to the medium, and their meeting with the creative expression to describe everyday social activity, brought a new kind of photography through the innovativeness of photojournalism. The photographer, who likes the real world, was born. The photographer who basically is an amateur – he is not earning his living from street photography – and he has at least one personal reason to take photos. This kind of photography takes place in public space (amateur – there is no studio), with the camera in hand.

    This kind of photography is also called street photography. The photographer shoots people unknown to him, if possible without been noticed. In this case, the concept of street is a limit of perception. The street is any public space that, depending on the case, is a theatrical scene or a battlefield. Depending on the photographer and his social determination.

    There are no rules in this process. Life is overwhelmed by images, others made unclear and others with much effort and meditation. These images exist in the public space to serve a purpose or as a result of the social process or sometimes accidentally, whether we like it or not. When the intimate curiosity of man, the tendency to study, to capture and comprehend, meet the desire for expression and creation, man has the choice to use the camera. This photo – the street photo – acts as an act of sociability. Exist as an expression – result of the effort of understanding the world.

  3. Someone once said: the objectivity of the photography is the objectivity of the photographer, meaning that a picture cannot be more objective than the subjectivity of the person who took it. Documentary photography is also making its story, the photographer story, despite his/her efforts in telling the “true story”… there is never a single “true story”, but personal impressions and perceptions which construe the reality for us.

  4. I’m trying to ignore genres because I don’t want to feel restricted in order to fit into a certain category, but that’s just my approach. I really liked some points mentioned here though! Especially that street photography creates stories while documentary photography documents them gives me a lot to think about.

  5. A professional and interesting article – I enjoyed reading it 🙂
    Personally I agree with most of what is written in it but I know very famous documentary photographers who do not recognize street photography and claim that it’s just a kind of documentary photography

  6. The term street photography did not exist during the time of Bresson, Ronis, Doisneu, Frank, Winogrand, Marie, and the rest. These great men and women were social documentarists and what they do is called photo reportage. The term street photography only came to be at the advent of the internet. If you look through the P pages of Life photography books published in the 70s and 80s, the term street photography do not exist. Ebven the very popular American Photographer magazine and Popular Photography magazine have no references to street photography.

    • Times change and new terms start to exist in order to describe new photographic trends. One of those is Street Photography, a term that is relatively new but in my opinion also needed in order to better define existing genres such as documentary photography.

      • I agree. And since it has been established as a norm, I guess street photography will be street photography.

  7. Actually a good article about this for once. It was pretty much on point and about 80% of the new crop of street photographers don’t realize the difference. People tend to get lost in the context. Obviously every single image “documents” something. The verb “document” does not make it documentary. The same as if I ran somewhere, does it make me a runner? No.

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