Documentary Photography shows the camera at its most potent and radical (Clarke. G 1997: 145).

Documentary photography is to “record, diagnose, inform” (Sontag. S 2008: 133) its audience. A potent photograph is passive. It places greater emphasis on its aesthetics (framing, color and composition) as compared to its subject matter. It appeals to the audience as ‘beautiful’, whereas a radical photograph is aggressive as it prioritizes its subject matter above aesthetics with the aim to express its concerns to the audience explicitly. It engages the audience based on its subject matter with the intent to invoke emotions and actions. However, what was deemed as radical in the past may be deemed as potent today.

In the 19th Century, documentary photography was a plain condensation of an event. Photographs were simple to comprehend and easily assimilated (Grundberg. A 2010: 186). ‘The Harvest of Death’ (Fig. 1) explicitly depicted the deaths and ruination from the civil war in Gettysburg (Marien. M.W 2002: 98). It placed great emphasize on the subject matter: countless dead bodies as the aftermath of war. This photograph was radical in the 19th Century as it “involves more than appearance” (Grundberg. A 2010: 194). The audience in the 19th Century were engaged and consternated by the unfamiliar content in it. An introduction of something unfamiliar could be radical to its audience until familiarity dissolves the shock it instilled (Rosler, M 1989: 328). Today, mass media has exhaust image potentials of its subject matter (Grundberg. A 2010: 189) resulting the scene (Fig. 1) to be a ‘common sight’. In other words, the content no longer appealed to me, thus being less radical; more potent today.



Fig. 1: O’Sullivan, Timothy. The Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, 1863 (b/w photo).


The heart of documentary photography has always been its content (Jussim, E 1989: 154). In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Sha Fei’s ‘Most of the children in China Are Still Hungry’ (Fig. 2), would be deemed as radical. This wrenching photograph was shot without conscious composition (Grundberg. A 2010: 191-192), a document of a suffering arousing my indignation. As compared to Figure 1, this photograph has a less dreadful subject. However, it was still radical because it consisted of a straightforward composition with clear-cut visual narrative which indicate sincerity and honesty. It invoked early nineteenth century audience’s emotions through this explicitness (Marien. M.W 2002: 404). It appealed through its subject matter. Similar to figure 1, this photograph became less radical than it was, thus more potent now. Looking at this photograph in the present, I am able to “endure this ‘visual assault without a flinch’” (Marien. M.W 2002:419) due to the familiarity of its subject matter, being recycled in the visual media repeatedly. Its aesthetic beauty mesmerized and appealed to me, I was not aroused by the subject matter. Therefore, it has become more potent than radical today.


Fig. 2: SHA FEI. Most of the Children in China Are Still Hungry, 1936


Later in the twentieth century, documentary photography evolved from clear explicit photos of social issues to charming photos of personal perception. An example would be Joel Meyertowitz’s ‘Time Square, 1965’ (Fig. 3). He was casting his net on the streets for surprising and momentary coincidence, not just based on the subject matter, but of complex compositions (Grundberg. A 2010:191-192). It disengaged images from the social world in favor of aesthetics. When I saw this photograph, I was not concerned about the subject matter- who the couple was, instead I was in awe of the beautiful moment captured and of how it was so perfectly composed. As mentioned by Susan Sontag, “the lovely composition and elegant perspective… easily outlast the relevance of their subject matter” (2008: 109). An example of a potent photograph (Fig. 3) would be one that blinds us from the subject matter with its composition, one that did not evoke emotions in us, one that is simply passive in its nature.


Fig. 3: Joel Meyerowitz. Time Square, 1965



Fig. 4: Sebastião Salgado. Workers (1993)


Documentary photography swayed from its naturally explicit boundary towards the aesthetical side to convey its political or social messages. One such example would be Salgado’s work (Fig. 4), it focused on the beautification of the plight of its subject. Additionally, to aestheticize such a scene would be to distract its audience away from the subject matter. Instead of being concerned with its subject matter, I began admiring the photograph. The passivity of this photograph was reinforced by the charm and grace it exuded. The aesthetics did not induce any emotions in me, in addition it separated me from its subject. The perfect composition structured as a barrier to blind me (from its subject matter) and had a neutralizing effect on the distressed diffusing from the scene in the photograph. Thus this photograph is potent because it is passive and not aggressive. (Jussim, E 1989: 68; Sontag, S 2008: 109; Strauss, D.L 2003: 5)

In conclusion, there are two sides of documentary photography. One that uphold demands for radical, aggressive, soul-shocking, emotional and thought provoking photographs while the other craved for beautiful, well composed, aesthetical and potent photographs. Each side has a different purpose, whether it is to convey and to call for action (emotional or literal) about a situation explicitly, or to seduce its audience through the embellishing of a situation. Therefore, I can conclude that documentary photography shows the camera at its most potent and radical (Clarke. G 1997: 145).






List of Illustrations:


Figure 1. O’SULLIVAN, Timothy. 1863. The Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, 1863 (b/w photo). Bridgeman education [Online Image] Available from: [Accessed on 29th November 2015]


Figure 2. SHA FEI. 1936. Most of the Children in China Are Still Hungry, 1936. SHA FEI RESEARCH CENTER FOR CHINESE IMAGE [Online Image] Available from: [Accessed on 29th November 2015]


Figure 3. MEYEROWITZ, Joel. 1965. Time Square, 1965. Chasing Light. Available from: [Accessed on 30th November 2015]


Figure 4. SALGADO, Sebastião. 1993. Workers (1993). 2-FRENCH MAGAZINE. Available from: [Accessed on 30th November 2015]





BURGIN, V. 1982. ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning.’ In: Burgin, V. Thinking photography. London: Macmillan


CLARKE, G. 1997. The photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press


COOKMAN, C. 1998.  “Compelled to witness: The social realism of Henri Cartier-Bresson”, Journalism History. [Online] Falmouth Summon 24(1) p. 2-14. Available from:

=ufh&AN=764189&site=ehost-live [Accessed on 2nd December 2015]


GRUNDBERG, A. 2010.  ‘The new Photojournalism and the Old’, ‘Magnums Post-war Paradox’, and ‘Subject and Style: Prospects for a New Documentary’. In: Grundberg A. Crisis of the Real. 3rd Ed. New York: Aperture


JUSSIM, E. 1989. ‘The Subject Beautiful’ & ‘Propaganda and Persuasion’ in Jussim, E. The eternal moment: essays on the photographic image. New York: Aperture


MARIEN, M.W. 2002. Photography: A Cultural History. 3rd Ed. London: Laurence King


ROSLER, M. 1989. ‘In, around and afterthoughts on documentary photography’ in Bolton, R. The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge: MIT Press


SONTAG, S. 2008. On photography. London: Penguin


SONTAG, S. 2004. Regarding the pain of others. London: Penguin


STRAUSS, D.L. 2003. Between The Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. New York: Aperture


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