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How Documentary Photography Shapes Our Relationship to Current Events

This month we’re considering documentary photography — how it shapes our relationship to current events and each other. With cameras in nearly every hand or pocket, we’re all poised to capture the news as it happens, and social media lets us share our photos in an instant. All this means that we’ve come to expect a constant flow of real-life images keeping us updated on what is happening around us.

This raises some pretty interesting questions: How did we come to think of photos as a news source? How do documentary images shape our collective consciousness and our shared moral compass? And how is the current proliferation of real-life images impacting trends across photography, including the stock world?

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When journalism went visual.

There was one critical technology development that made photojournalism possible — the 35-millimeter camera. Small and fast enough to capture real life, not just posed portraits, the first commercially available Leica 35mm cameras arrived on the market in the mid 1920s.

As photographers started to document the ways people really lived, their photographs began to shape a shared understanding of current events, especially crises. During the Great Depression, the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration realized the power of images to impact public opinion. Working for the Administration, Dorthea Lange famously captured one of the most iconic and heartbreaking images of the era, “Migrant Mother.” The 1936 photograph shows a mother whose facial expression tells the story of her struggle to survive and feed her children. According to Lange, both women recognized that the act of photographing had the potential to reverberate far beyond their encounter:

I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

That same year, Life Magazine launched and became an instant hit. As one of the first photo-centric periodicals, Life employed captions and vibrant photographs as a new form of reporting. In 1943, while covering the early days of World War II, Life challenged the Pentagon’s prohibition against publishing photographs of dead soldiers, and won. When they ran their unprecedented image of fallen soldiers lying on a New Guinea beach, they forever changed how Americans’ experienced war back home.

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Since then, photojournalism has continued to produce the iconic images we all associate with major world events. When you think of the Vietnam War, you’re bound to remember Nick Ut’s devastating, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Napalm Girl,” while the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1970 image of Mary Ann Veccio screaming over the body of an anti-war protester at Kent State remains a lasting symbol of the protests and violent clashes back home. Likewise, the current crisis in Syria may be forever symbolized in the heartbreaking photograph of drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee, Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed ashore in Turkey.

The ethical questions behind documenting.

With the tremendous power of photojournalists to forge public opinion and move people to action come significant ethical responsibilities. For example, NPR reported that in the 1980s, the NGOs working to deliver food aid to famine-struck East Africans came under fire for the images in their ad campaigns. Photographs of starving children helped raise millions of dollars, but critics argued that the subjects were framed as incapable victims, stripped of their dignity and agency. Instead of “poverty porn,” the new generation of fundraising images focus on active, empowered subjects.

Talking to NPR, Jennifer Lentfer, the director of communications at IDEX, an international grant-maker, suggested a good rule of thumb for photographers: “If that person in a photo was your nephew, your child, your grandmother, would you want them to appear in that ad? If the answer is no, you’re over the line.”

Our appetite for reality is growing.

Since the earliest days of photojournalism, we’ve come to expect that we won’t just hear the news, we’ll also see it. Today everyone, from professional photojournalists to citizen journalists, is capturing and sharing nearly real-time images of breaking news — from protests to police violence to politics. To help designers keep pace, we’re partnering with Reuters and USA TODAY Sports to add comprehensive editorial images of breaking news, sports, business, entertainment, and more.

SERGIO MORAES / REUTERS

We think that this changing visual environment is also impacting stock photography. People simply expect authentic, natural images across design styles. Follow us on the blog this month as we dig deeper into the state of documentary photography, exploring the images in the new Adobe Stock Editorial collection and asking experts what makes an excellent documentary photograph. To see more, browse the Editorial collection on Adobe Stock.

For More Information:

  • Check here for more on the history behind Lange’s “Migrant Mother” image.
  • Learn about Life Magazine’s fight to publish its image of dead soldiers, and how the photo was captured here.
  • Watch a video of Nick Ut describing the day he took the “Napalm Girl” photograph.
  • For more on the photographs of the Kent State shootings, read here.
  • And for a good overview of the history of photojournalism, visit the work of Dr. Ross Collins.
2017 Visual Trends, Adobe Stock, Creative Cloud

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