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How to Create a Narrative in Documentary Photography

Jun 01, 2021 04:00PM ● By Anand Subramanian
African American Documentary Photography

At its core, photography is about conserving the human aesthetic and capturing fleeting moments. While many genres are free to experiment with surrealism and abstract expressionism, documentary photography is about photographing reality as it is. It is the art of capturing culturally, historically, and politically significant events and stories. These photographs are impactful on a global scale while raising awareness, showcasing various human psyches, and shaping the narrative in history. Some notable examples include Gordon Parks' exploration of the socio-economic impact on racism, Roy DeCarva's capture of the lives of jazz musicians, and James Van Der Zee's preservation of historically significant figures such as Marcus Garvey, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Countee Cullen. Documentary photographs have been used in the past to highlight every defining moment in the Black culture. From the harsh realities of lynching to the Black Lives Matter Movement, African American photographers have used their platform to shape reality free of racial prejudice and stereotypical thinking. 

Figure 1 - Portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. Source - Pxhere

The quality of documentary photographs stems from the seamless flow of the anecdote and the objectivity every frame carries. The goal is to create a series of photographs that include every piece of information of a particular story while maintaining aesthetic integrity and technical pulse. In this article, we will discuss how to create a narrative flow without adversely affecting the integrity and ethics of documentation.

The first step is developing a plan and purpose for the photography project. Curiosity in an unplanned project may be appealing from an aesthetic standpoint, but too many challenges will disrupt the momentum and cause us to lose interest. It is preferable to plan and in-depth research ahead of time to avoid such blunders. The reconnaissance of the project’s location, collection of necessary permission letters, preparation of mood boards, and selection of gears are all part of the planning process. Before entering the project site, ensure that you have had a conversation with the main subjects involved in the documentation process. It is always a good idea to keep the mood board file on hand with composition and lighting references. This simplifies and expedites the photography process.

Figure 2 - The Great Migration. Source- Pxhere

The second step is to execute, once you have solid logistics in place. The photography aspect is divided into four major elements: establishing shots, detail shots, main shots, and conclusion shots. Establishing shots are images that set the tone for the rest of the narrative. It can include photographs of the exterior or interior location where the particular story is taking place. This gives a sense of the environment and provides an overall perspective. Detail shots add value to the narrative by capturing close-up shots of objects in the environment that indicate the main subject's characteristics and circumstances. The main shot is the narrative's heart and soul, and it can include a series of setup or candid portraits of the subjects involved. It is critical to listen to your subject's testimonials while capturing such portraits because the core aesthetics of your photography process are dependent on the rawness of those testimonies. After the portrait session, make sure you finish the narrative that depicts the event's conclusion.

Figure 3 - The Muslim Man from Chor Baazar, Mumbai. Source - Photographed by Anand Subramanian

The curation and post-production processes are the most important, as it defines your narrative abilities. It is critical to curate the photographs objectively, and the editing process should be kept to a minimum. A minor change in skin texture or the removal of an object can jeopardize the credibility of your documentation. The only acceptable post-processing techniques are black and white conversion, cropping, and basic tweaking of brightness and contrast.

Documentary photography has been used for generations to raise voices through visuals, and as technology evolves, the line between ethical and manipulative documentation is becoming increasingly blurred. Never forget the photography ancestors who put everything in line to capture the reality of inequality, discrimination, injustice, and oppression. Let us keep our documentation approach objective because a strong visual can change the course of history, for the better or worse.

 Anand SubramanianEntering the Inner Sanctum: Exploring the Art of Portraits is a freelance photographer and content writer based out of Tamil Nadu, India. Having a background in Engineering always made him curious about life on the other side of the spectrum. He leapt forward towards the Photography life and never looked back. Specializing in Documentary and  Portrait photography gave him an up-close and personal view into the complexities of human beings and those experiences helped him branch out from visual to words. Today he is mentoring passionate photographers and writing about the different dimensions of the art world.

Read more from Anand Subramanian:

Entering the Inner Sanctum: Exploring the Art of Portraits

The Dance Between Instrumentals and Visuals: An Opinion Piece

Taking a Step Back: Why Is It Important? - Opinion Piece