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What Is Documentary Photography?

What Is Documentary Photography?

What Is Not?


Ozcan Yaman Evrensel Gazete JournalisBy Özcan Yaman Ι published by X-POSURE Ι July 2021 Vol.1 No.5

Documentary Photography: When you think of photography, the first thing that comes to mind is documentary photography. Why is that? Because the relationship of photography with reality and reality with photography provides this. Photography is taking a frame from the objective reality. Therefore, it is a proof , leaving to history.

What is a document? It is proof. Identity wallets, official papers , title deeds etc… Keeping the document until tomorrow gives information for the past.

If we look at it from this side, almost every photograph taken has a documentary frame. Souvenir photographs, street photographs, nature/landscape photographs, whether artistic, fictional or randomly taken, and even the frames taken by security cameras are documents, that is, the proof of the existence of the thing. So is all this enough? Of course not enough…Let me help those who are tired of reading long articles by saying what will be said at the end. The issue is in relation to reality.


How much truth do images taken out of context reveal?

So what is the truth?

When Sheikh Bedreddin started to question the truth, he could not get out of it, he went to his teacher Ahlati and said, “What is the truth?” he asked. Ahlati thought about how to explain it briefly and concisely and told the following joke: One day, the kadi summoned Hodja Nasreddin to the presence and asked, “How old are you?” “Forty,” said Hodja Nasreddin, and Kadi was surprised and angry. “You said forty when I called you five years ago,” he says. Hodja told proudly ‘’May the foundations of justice rise above me, lord! Because I’m a man of my word, I’m saying the same thing I said years ago.’’

It is generally thought that there is always a sameness between what we see with the naked eye and the image of the photograph, but the photograph copies the real image and makes it permanent. And mostly, those who want to photograph what they see with the naked eye will be disappointed.

It is said, “It was so beautiful, I took it, but it didn’t come out like that” and the quality of the camera used is questioned, it is interpreted as “This is what happened with the amateur camera, it would be better if it was a professional camera”. For this reason, those who want to perpetuate what they see with the naked eye through the camera first become interested in photography and go to courses, buy some expensive cameras, try a little and then give up. Those who belittle photography says, “ you just press the automatic button, the machines take it by itself “ and some who recognize that this is not the case at all say, “It’s not for me, it’s hard to take pictures” and walk away.


The eye sees in three dimensions. The photograph is recorded on the surface in two dimensions.

The eye sees in three dimensions. The photograph is recorded in two dimensions on the surface. The brain constantly corrects what the eye sees. Most people are not aware of this. They do not naturally wonder why they are unaware. In this sense, you are reading a technical article. Developing technology is trying to attach brains to cameras. Compared to previous years, they have partially succeeded.

Kelvin, aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings are automated or offered as an option other than manual. Although we generally consider these problems as technical, these features of the cameras play an important role in the photographers’ interpretation of objective reality. And by making sense of and naming what you see,you talkabout reality.It is a newspaper you read. Next to it is a cup of tea. Table chair etc. a little further away. You don’t think of the newspaper as paper, the teacup as glass, and the table as wood. Because even though they are made of these substances, they have changed and transformed and become objects.

Reality; is the acquisition of objectivity properties to a matter. It is the perception of the object. The quantitative state of each substance (solid, liquid and gas) is perceived by its qualities. It is known for its facts. The fact that objects and different states of objects can be known and interpreted in a three-dimensional world that we see with the naked eye is the quality/ reality that is given to those objects.

If there is no defect in our eyes, we can see the depth clearly. The teacup standing in the foreground seems clear, as the opposite sidewalk outside the window seems so. We can clearly see all the stacks of pencils in the pencil holder in front of us. No matter what light environment we enter, we see white as white and colors as colors in our perception up to a certain limit. Photography is therefore perceived as a copying of reality. This point is important. Because the reality of the photograph is different from the reality we see with the naked eye. Although it seems similar, the settings of the tools of the camera, the focal lengths of the lenses used, the characteristics of the light source, the state of the perspective, etc. everything plays a role in transferring reality by changing it. The image we see when we take a photo is different from what we see when we look up while passing through a street with high buildings. What we see in different light conditions is different from what we photograph. So, aphotographisnotacopy of what we see with the naked eye.


When the technique, content and format are completed, we can define that work as Documentary photography or photo portrait, whether it is a single frame or a series of photographs. The subject may be nature, landscape, or human.


Ozcan Yaman, Evrensel Gazetesi,What Is Documentary Photography? What Is Not?


A photo of a girl running, screaming, naked after a Napalm bombardment, taken by AP Reporter Nick Ut on June 8, 1972, about 40 kilometers northwest of Saigon. This photo had a great impact in the world after being taken and published. US President Richard Nixon said that he was “wondering whether the photo is fake or not” and Nick Ut replied, “Doesn’t the horror of the Vietnam War I recorded need to be corrected?” In 1973, the Pulitzer Committee acknowledged that the photo was not fake and awarded the photograph with the Pulitzer Prize.

E.g; A shot by Associated Press (AP) Agency Correspondent Eddie Adams on February 1, 1968, where South Vietnam Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes Nguyen Van Lem, a Vietcong fighter, in Saigon. Eddie Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for this photo. He has received more than 500 awards in honor of his more than 50 years of work as a photographer.


Let’s give an example from Turkey…

Photograph- Abdurrahman Gök (Dicle News Agency)

credit: Abdurrahman Gök (Dicle News Agency)

The experiences of Journalist Abdurrahman Gök, who worked as a reporter at Dicle News Agency (the agency was later closed with a statutory decree) and now as an editor at the Mezopotamya Agency. Even though the photographs he took had great repercussions, silence remains in photojournalism. I wonder what my friends and institutions say about Abdurrahman’s photographs, who write about the valuable photographers I mentioned above and comment on examples from the history of the press. I think the answer to this question is censored/ autocensored. Someday they will write, and they will give all kinds of reasons why they did not write on time.

The reality of this photo will always remain. The photographs of Nick Ut and Eddie Adams have always been exemplary in stopping wars and oppression. However, 20 years imprisonment was requested for Abdurrahman.


In order for a photograph to be a documentary, it is necessary to pay attention to several points. 

1- To be taken directly (no modifications such as collage- montage)

2- Being able to answer questions such as place, time, who (WHAT / Gives the subject, WHY / Gives the purpose, HOW /Determines the method, WHERE/Concepts of space and place, WHEN/ Duration – concepts of process, WHO / It determines the relevant and responsible persons. That is, it can be as under the photo)

Interfering with the subject and removing it from the it’s own environment is to affect reality. For example, if workers are used as models in a photograph taken in a construction, that photograph will be broken from the documentary. Also, according to Robert Capa, ‘to use a lens other than a normal lens is to distort reality’. Or Roger Fentom’s photographs of the Crimean war. According to logic, they can be documentary in form.

For example, what were the clothes and things like when those photos were taken? When we ask, or if the Crimean war is to be filmed, traces of that period are needed, then Roger Fentom’s photographs will help show how the soldiers’ clothes and weapons were. When we say reality, can we see the mood of the moment. Here is the important feature that makes a photo documentary.


How about a Social Documentary it may be asked.

It is a storytelling with photographs, approaching the subject with priority over the content, questioning the cause-effect relationship. For example, if it is a strike work, a few photos can be taken and leave the place. This would be a news photo. They Affirm Or Negate The strike. But if it is to be considered from a socialist/ social documentary point of view; Study must show the causes, development and outcome of the strike. The photographer must live with striking workers. It means photographing the process with success or failure of the strike. There are many examples from the past.

Earthquakes, social upheavals (such as Gezi Protests, 15-16 June 1970 workers protests , Zonguldak protests, Tekel protests…)

Adhering to the objective reality of the subject, we can say that it is to tell the reality in the most effective and striking way without distorting it. It is not enough to follow the subject studied and try to make its effect visible. In this case, it also requires the photographer to take part in the social struggle as an activist. Here, the photographer’s view of life and his interpretation of events and phenomena are important. This requires a method.  

If“ appearances were real, there would be no need for sciences.” K.Marx Philosophers have been content with ‘explaining the world’ for hundreds of years.

Whereas, ‘it should also have been important to change it’ says Marx. While explaining the world and human history, Marxism presented “Historical Materialism” as a method. “Class struggles make history,” says Marx.

From this point of view, while explaining the power of photography, it is important to consider it from a Marxist perspective.


Photography cannot be handled with science or art alone.

Photography cannot be handled with science or art alone. The technological development of photography cannot be read as the power of photography alone. Likewise, its development in the artistic field cannot explain the power of photography. But when the power and effect of photography is mentioned, many megapixels and technological advances are evaluated. Or, we see that the photographe of women with their hair flying at sunset, created using technology with the logic of “photo like painting” , is referred to as a photograph that the art of painting cannot do, with macro-shot flowers and insects.


If we synchronize the history of the world with the dates of the photograph;

It is necessary to examine the history of the world, that is, the process started with the invention of photography, as scientific, artistic and social development. This process cannot be done without addressing the ‘relationships of production’. If we synchronize the history of the world with the dates of the photograph; When we examine the nearly 200-year history, almost documentary photography establishes the history of class struggles and its development with a synchronicity. The developments since the invention of photography are synchronized with the history of social change and struggles.derstanding and questioning is the problem of every person of science and art. In short, as long as there are class societies, science and art will also have a class.

Interpretation of concepts according to the literature. That guides us as a result of a methodological study. The artist’s position in the subjective design process of the objective world and its view of life guides it. This indicates that it is not possible to create a neutral work of art. “…Aesthetics, often presented as the science of beauty, the science of the artistic assimilation of Reality’’ says Avner Ziss. Aesthetic feelings, human aesthetic abilities and needs, evaluations on the objective world and events are formed in practice.

In the last analysis, science and art always have a class character, but this quality becomes clearer in times of sharpening social contradictions. Therefore, it is natural for my ideological struggle to gain great intensity in the period we live in. A good example is that being an artist (Writer, musician, painter or photographer) does not mean being neutral and without ideology;

“ Let me remind you the following note summarizing the ideological structure of art and the consciousness of being an intellectual: They asked Louis Aragon; “What are you, a writer or a communist?” Aragon said, “I am a writer first and foremost. That’s why I’m a communist.””. 

How much truth do images taken out of context reveal?

So what is the truth?

Özcan Yaman, Gezi protest, Evrensel Gazetesi, X-POSURE

credit: Özcan Yaman (Gezi protest)

…We say the camera is like a weapon. Instead of the trigger, we press the shutter. The moment of pressing the shutter is important. That is the moment of decision for us. We frame what is outside of us, perhaps what is with us, and we press the shutter button in a fraction of a second. That moment has now happened. What emerges is an image from the passing time. But this is not such an image. It is a frame that has a promise about the future and perpetuates the moment it was taken, and actually lives. The photographer carries the future in the union of the shutter and the moment of decision. That moment flies by, and that moment remains for tomorrow.


But what happens if the trigger is pressed instead of the shutter button?

Özcan Yaman, Gezi protest, Evrensel Gazetesi, X-POSURE

credit: Özcan Yaman (Gezi protest)

I can say the opposite of what I said above. Death spreads as soon as a gun is fired. For those who are in front of the gun,
this means an end. What will be left for tomorrow? Death. Another? Pain and end. When the trigger is pressed, tomorrow disappears, so while the trigger ends the future, the shutter makes the future live. The result is the definition that Sennur Sezer made for the photographers responsible for , “Photography; We can say that it is a weapon standing in front of the road to fascism. This is why fascism is afraid of the camera. But the truth and the photographers who bear the witness and responsibility of this truth will be in very razor-sharp photographs. Fears of those who press the trigger kneel in front of the photographers.


As a result;

When does the photo show itself? I think after brewing. How is it brewed?

Photography requires a brain that first reads the present and connects it with the future,and then can distinguish the ordinary for today. Then it wants an eye that can do this with the language of visuality, that is, with photography. Then it wants to deal with technical skills, and finally wants to be archived. In a sense, this is the brewing of photography. It will be shared when the time comes. All this is achieved with knowledge, talent, skill and intuition. Being an artist is also possible by living / keeping this situation alive. Photo brewing sometimes happens in seconds, sometimes it takes years. It is the beautiful relationship between life and photography. It is the successful and purposeful processing of the photograph. 


“We saw/experienced the equivalent of art in general, and photography in particular, during the Gezi protest. The spirit of the protestors was embodied in art. Art, which could not reach to sheltered areas for years, showed itself especially with the intelligence of the youth during the Gezi protests. (…) Art was in the street and the street was teaching…” 


They say; “An artist is a person who sees the future.” Being a Social/Community Documentary Photographer means combining art and profession. The way to be successful is to know how to read the moment we live. Then, whether you make art, successful news or whatever you want…

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