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.
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.
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.
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.
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.