Fine Art vs Documentary Photography

Documentary photography is a genre of photography which is used to present a chronical of events. They usually capture events that carry some significance in history or everyday life. Documentary photography is considered to be truthful and objective and is described by many as a window to the world. The images are seen to be candid images of a subject that are not altered or cropped in any way, thus adding to their truthfulness and validity. Documentary photography is often linked to photojournalism which is imagery used predominantly in the news and in news publications. This genre refers to the reportage of current modern day issues, rather than an overall view of the world that we live in as it is.

Not only is this style of photography key to helping us understand the modern world and the events that take place in it every day, but also it is a beneficial and interesting way of looking at reality, past and present. The types of images taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, a German documentary photographer, allow us to remember specific events and act as memories in print. However, at times, documentary photography can be considered as extremely invasive and there is a large argument around ethics within this genre of photography. Phil Coomes writes for the BBC “Many factors come into a play at the moment of squeezing the shutter. Does the photographer have the consent of the person he is photographing? If the person is not capable of giving their consent (if they do not speak the same language, or are injured for example, or even dead), is it appropriate to continue photographing? If the person in the photograph is in obvious distress or danger, should the photographer put down the camera? Are there circumstances in which the photographer should provide help or assistance? If the photograph is taken, after all these considerations, who will see it? How will its future dissemination affect the people in the photograph?”. Enrique Metinides is a documentary photographer working from 1949 to 1979 taking images of crime, murder and disasters in Mexico City. Metinides photographed his first corpse when he was 12 and a year later was working as an assistant for the crime photographer of Mexican newspaper, La Prensa. This was seen to be overstepping the boundaries around documentary photography and caused a whirlwind of controversy in the media.

Fine art photography differs from this in the way that, while it can resonate around the same subject, it tends to be much more conceptual. This genre aims to convey feelings, emotions and meanings, the deeper meaning if you will, rather than what is right in front of the camera. Images within the realm of fine art photography tend to be staged and dramatised constructed images that tell the viewer more than what they see. They re-present objective reality in a more creative way compared to other photography genres. A fine art photographer holds beauty very highly when composing images and concepts.

Fine art photography was traditionally seen as more abstract and highly conceptual imagery which challenged and questioned the traditional views people have surrounding a certain topic. It continues to allow for much more creative freedom. However, these days many different professionals are venturing into the realm of fine art such as wedding photographers. This means that there is increased competition in the industry leaving much work unseen. Unlike documentary and photojournalistic photography, it is much harder for fine art photographer to make their name as they tend to work as freelance photographers. Documentary photographers and photojournalists are able to work for newspapers and agencies.


“I think the fundamental difference between photojournalism and fine art photography is that in the first instance, the photographer is the messenger and in the second, the photographer is the author. Art photography allows you to create on a different level altogether”




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