The Importance of Social Documentary Photography

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Words: 3485 |

Pages: 8|

18 min read

Published: Dec 5, 2018

Words: 3485|Pages: 8|18 min read

Published: Dec 5, 2018

A social issue is a problem that influences a large number of the people within society. It is often a conflicting opinion on the grounds of what is perceived as a morally right. Social issues are affecting the world as we get on with our everyday lives. Photography is a key element within documenting these social issues, for example, poverty, homelessness or even starvation. I have chosen specifically to look at homelessness in today's society and explore how social documentary photography has helped impact viewers of this horrific happening and whether it has created awareness. Before this, I will firstly look at where social documentary photography originated and where it has taken us through history to now. It is a form of documentary photography, with the aim to draw the public's attention to ongoing social issues sometimes in a specific time period. It may also refer to a socially critical genre of photography dedicated to showing the life of underprivileged or disadvantaged people - (2). Social documentary photography has been and still is an act of producing awareness by documenting the unprivileged and shocking those who go by their everyday lives without a look down or a thought to those lesser of than themselves within society. But how much has social documentary photography impacted on society.

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Social documentary photography has originated in the 20th Century (although documenting in photographic form all started back in the 19th Century) with the work of the photographic practice of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the USA. The FSA hired photographers and writers to report and document the lives as well as document the dangerous and difficult work of poor, disadvantaged farmers. The photographers documented the horrifying situation of these farmers, whose finical existence was under threat due to the ongoing issues in which America had in the American Depression stage. The FSA was ""attempting to restore faith in American society"" (10). The reality is that Americans were victimized by disasters such as dust bowls which all are beyond their control during The Great Depression period in America. (10) This all created a new style of photography of the documentation of social problems.

Social documentary photography has passed throughout the years to documenting poverty within the wars as well as the suffering of certain races and religions. Nowadays, we have started to resolve these social issues and now are focusing on what is happening now. Poverty is still a massive issue which affects millions of people in the UK let alone other countries whose figures are higher. Poverty can be homelessness as well as nit being able to afford the everyday essentials of water and food. This can be caused by low income, high costs of everyday essentials, low levels of education as well as discrimination and weak relationships (6). Social Documentary photographers are raising awareness by documenting the daily lives of those less fortunate or taking horrifying images to shock viewers, therefore, creating a great impact which forces through awareness. Photographer Lee Jefferies is doing exactly that. Firstly, getting to know the people on the streets by sleeping rough with them and hearing their stories then explaining about him wanting to raise awareness through photography. The images taken are creepy and shocking but have done the job. With all images sold, some of the money goes towards the homeless people who allowed their photo to be taken and the rest of homeless charities (7,8,9).

Social documentary photography is an act of producing awareness by documenting the unprivileged and shocking those who go by their everyday lives without a look down or a thought to those lesser of than themselves within society.

This documenting all started back in the 19th Century. The 20th Century was where photographers were hired by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) to document the dangerous and difficult work of the poor farmers. During The Great Depression period in America. This all created a new form of documentary photography by documenting social problems. Arthur Rothstein - Social Documentary Photographer - picture of a farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, 1936. ""All the days were about alike then. For a three-year-old kid, you just go outside and play, dust blows and sand blows, and you don't know any different. One evening a black duster come in here from the north. We had kerosene lamps. And it got so dark you couldn't see with kerosene lamps. —Darrel Coble. (the boy at right in the photograph, recalling the Dust Bowl days as an adult)"" - (6)

FSA photographs created sympathy for the farming citizens through the wide distribution in newspapers and magazines during the time. As intended, these photographs also proved how necessary the government's assistance programs were to the survival of those hit hardest by the depression and dust bowl disasters. - (6) The combined effects of the Great Depression and the dust bowl drought devastated the country physically, financially, and emotionally in the 1930s. The Great Depression started with a severe economic downturn in 1929 and lasted more than a decade. Frenzied speculation in the stock market, particularly by investors who borrowed money to buy stock, drove the market to unreasonably high levels. When stocks began to fall in value, panic seized investors. The huge sell-off that followed plunged the country into years of high unemployment and bank closures. In a terrible coincidence, the dust bowl disaster began at approximately the same time as the Great Depression. Extreme weather patterns brought drought and high winds to the southern Plains. This affected mainly Texas and Oklahoma as well as western Kansas, and eastern areas of Colorado and New Mexico. Lands were already damaged from hard rooted soils due to drying out and other bits of land were over-farmed. The drought in conjunction with fierce winds exhausted the soil further which created fearsome dust storms - (6).

My perception/views... This image shows me the awful everyday life of a farmer in America during the Great Depression period and the dust bowls which happened at near enough the same time. This was a horrible time for the American and they all held the American dream in their heads as reality was far from the dream. Their home is an old shed-like building which seams worn and broken telling me the high amounts of poverty in this horrendous time. As a viewer, I feel this has impacted me in a way in which I feel more grateful for the home I live in and the conditions which I live in. Seeing this image, the impact upon society should have been huge at the time with the feeling of want to change, change to the need for change. The image shows how isolated people were in those times, suggesting not only the conditions being bad but it being quite a sad and lonely life. This is why people during the time period has many kids.

Further images during this period included Dorothea Lange's photograph ""Migrant Mother"" which was taken in 1936, which was the middle of the Great Depression. The viewer can see the sad and unhopeful look on the mother's appearance, making the viewer wonder what she is worried about. Is she concerned about her family? Does she wonder how she's going to set food on her table for that day? Will her kids be alright for just one more day?

Social documentary photography continued throughout the year, documenting social events, issues and problems. These included wars and battles, protesting and poverty. Here is a famous image by John Florea who was a war photographer who spent time in concentration camps documenting in photographic form the reality and truth of the camps and conditions within. John Florea (1916 – 2000) (1) had photography ranging dramatically from Comedic images alike the “Columnist Sidney and Bob Hope, Hollywood, 1943” all the way to looking at concentration camps. These brutal images during the war are horrific to view and therefore creates social awareness if shared with the media and newspapers. John Florea - The Bodies of 3000 of the Nazi’s slave labourers in preparation for burial, Nrdhausen, Germany, 1945.

My perception of this image shows the true horrific impact of the Nazi’s towards slaves of the war which included the Jewish community and the captured. Once they’re useless as slaves they are then gassed or shot. Most died from starvation or diseases for they had little food and next to no hygiene or even health care. The way in which they are lined up in rows makes them seem like criminals as if because of their religion or the fact that they’re from a different country (foreign). As well as this, what they believe in, they are wrong and going against Hitler, therefore deserve to be punished. Moreover, the row created, even though they’re all different people, the Jews are put on the same level because of what they believe in therefore treated as criminals. Furthermore, the Nazis’ there look down on them as if they have done greater good for their country by getting rid of those who are known to be successful and wealthy being a “treat” in Hitler’s’ eyes. Anyone who goes against Hitler’s beliefs and rules is considered a threat. As well as this, the place seems like a rubbish dump for the Nazis’, where they pile them up (the Jews) ready to be mass buried or burnt alike what we do with rubbish that cannot be reused. Moreover, the soldiers are walking away as if its the end of their working day, this being their everyday normal lives.

The image has a one-point perspective look to it with the never-ending rows of dead bodies leading at the end to this dark silhouette; this giving the image a hellish look as if the bodies are being sucked into the end of their lives ready to be burned into the depths of non-existence. Overall, the image disturbs me with the idea of death and the thought that one person’s opinion managed to end the lives of countless innocent people. As well as this, it makes me feel useless as a viewer for its in the past and nothing that I can do can bring these Jews back. Had I been at the time (1945) seeing this image, I would be horrified and with any power I could I would want to take action to stop this madness.

“Sometimes they got the picture nobody had asked for,” LIFE’s editors wrote in a Nov. 5, 1945. - (2)

“Some people, like Robert Capa, knew before what war was. Not John Florea,” Feyeux says. “You can feel it in the photos. It was a terrible shock to him.” - (2)

“Have you ever really gotten hit in the gut hard and lose your breath and fall to your knees? You know how that hurts,” Florea told fellow LIFE photographer John Loengard in 1993, reflecting on his time as a war correspondent. “I felt someone had hit me so hard—I actually cried.” - (2)

These statements inform me that the images that these (social) documentary photographers captured created a huge impact at the time of the war as they were horrifying and shocking. Almost all of the people viewing them can do nothing about the war but cry and be heartbroken, at most they can protest. This is the horrifying reality of social documentary photography, you can look but not always respond to make change, but the impact within opinions were there. In actual fact, these dead were the victims of the US terror attack on Nordhausen on 4 April 1945. Although World War two was almost to be over, German cities continued to be bombed.

In Consequence, the city of Nordhausen was bombed, almost totally destroyed the whole city. The 4th April was 2 days before the evacuation of the camp to Bergen-Belsen causing tragic, un-needed deaths because of the destroying the Boelke barracks in which the inmates were being housed. ‘The bodies of almost 3,000 slave labourers being buried by US soldiers. - (2)

John Florea - Prisoner in the barracks of a Nordhausen concentration camp, Germany, 1945. This is another image by John Florea showing the conditions in which prisoners of wars had to live in, the shadow which drapes across the mans eyes are deep and dark leading to the desperate look as he stares into the camera. Moreover, the shadow also shows the definitions of bones within his face, he is underweight, most probably starved. The way in which he is sat suggests he’s weak with his arm lifting his body just to sit up. Light pours into the image but the light has been guided around wires and barricades, its like there’s no way out.

Social Documentary photography is something that has continually been approached by many photographers throughout the decades, most commonly documenting protests and poverty nowadays. A photographer who has taken social documentary photography into his own hands is Lee Jefferies who captures intimate photos of the homeless to create awareness for the people who get ignored on the streets.

Lee Jefferies is an Accountant and Amateur Sports Photographer. He takes intimate portraits of the homeless which are taken with horrific detail which can be perceived as “uncomfortable” with “every grain of dirt and, every scar laid bare” (1). It all started with Jefferies in London before he was to run the marathon he went round taking photos. He noticed amongst the crowds that there was a young homeless girl in a doorway to a shop in Leicester Square who was walked past and un-noticed by the colossal amounts of tourists. Jefferies decided to take pictures of her, but he stood a way off. Noticing him, “she kicked up a right fuss” - Jefferies (1). Jefferies talked to the girl to find out her story and since that moment his project arisen to capture intimate shots of the homeless in order to raise awareness and money for the homeless. He pays his “subjects” for the photos he takes and continues to help them after when their photos make money. Some of the homeless are not as keen as some others to let Jefferies take the photo and this project has had its risks where Jefferies has even had a gun pointed to his head and been demanded for money, even though he pays everyone anyway. This is self funded. Jefferies choose his “subjects” through selection of weather he can “see something in their eyes” and feel the emotion otherwise the image “won’t work” and therefore will lack in impact. - (1). Jefferies initially shoots everything naturally, with natural lighting and capturing in camera black and white. Then he edits the photos to give them this grainy edge to create impact and emotion within his images. He claims that it makes his photographs look more “artistic” - (1).

This image steals my heart as a viewer making me feel helpless in providing for this little girl. Her eyes are the first to pop out for me with them watering and telling her story, just by a sad look. Though we can not find out the story of this little girl you can make suggestions to what she might have been through. This could be anything from abandonment to her parents living with her on the streets because they couldn’t afford a home or even the little girl running away from home. The way she is looking up creates dark shadows not just below but above her eyes too; she is tired and weak. The bags underneath her eyes is a suggestion of lack of sleep, this could be due to the conditions on the street where she might be too scared or cold to sleep. Moreover, her face seems slightly screwed up as if she is trying to withhold all her emotions and bottle up her feelings; she is on the verge of tears. Not only this, but her clothes are dirty suggesting she doesn’t have anything else. Looking closer, it seems the clothes are some sort of uniform for school, does she attend school and get the education she deserves as a child with the right to learn and have as equal chance in life as everybody else. In addition, her hair blows across her face in clumps, this suggests to me as a viewer that she doesn’t have a place to clean herself and shower as grease causes you hair to matt and clump together. Overall, the sad, desperate look the little girl expresses within this imager in which Lee Jefferies has captured is heart-breaking and definitely will create an impact wider spread to think about the forgotten on the streets. With the grainy editing that Jefferies uses in his imagery, he is able to climax the impact further pulling out all the tiny details in the faces of the homeless for us as viewers to interpret the horrifying reality of the story of whom the homeless girl is.

This image is another of Lee Jefferies, here I am now showing that the homeless can range through all ages and genders and as you can imagine, Lee Jefferies has met a large variety of people in his time doing this homeless project, all with different stories. With this man, he seems really old and tired with all the wrinkles which cover his face. Not only this, his face is screwed up but this time it is not sadness, it is more anger and aggression. This could suggest to the viewer that this man has turned to drugs and alcohol to take away from the sadness and sorrow. Looking deeper, I can see someone who has maybe taken risks, and with the anger, this could suggest that he might have been quite successful in life before becoming homeless. One eye is closed, this opens up questions for the viewer, intriguing them into the photo, therefore creating impact, which is what Jefferies set out to do. Finally, his hair is grown out and matted (un - neat) which suggests to me that he has been homeless for a few months, maybe even years. Overall, the range of people Jefferies meets allows his photos as a combination viewed together to create a larger impact on the people viewing them as it shows the variety of emotions running through the homeless and the variety of ages and genders bringing together to create one huge impact within society within social documentary photography today. Jefferies as a photographer, has succeeded in creating awareness within the use of intimate up close photography and this is within then element of social documentary photography.

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Overall, social documentary photography has taken us throughout history and allowed us to create proof for the happenings around the world as well as some truth within the reality of events. From The American Depression and Dust bowls all the way through the World Wars and then to now with a high proportion of social documentary photography documenting poverty. I feel that I have proved that social documentary photography has created an impact throughout history and allowed viewers of the photographs at the time to grieve and feel sorrow, although not much was done to help the farmers and nothing could be done to change back time to revive who died in the war bombing. Today, things can be done due to changes in technology as now social media allows us as a society to come together as a community; all around the world we are connected so we can put forward more of an opinion to create a larger impact which consequently allows implementation to stop the suffering. With my project I had the idea of creating an impact myself at creating scary person types to shock viewers to not trust anyone. There is a huge stereotype in what a murderer should look like which I wanted to break. This was in combination with the idea that anyone has the potential to be a murderer through my research into real life murders and the fact they are unsuspected. I asked people who viewed my piece and had read the artist statement what they had thought of my project. The response was that the image is unforgettable and therefore, they are scared, allowing them to be more aware. You should be aware of your surroundings, you never know, who you think you know might not be the person you see on the outside. As a consequence of social documentary photography, we as a society have gained awareness and therefore I conclude it creates impact.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Importance Of Social Documentary Photography. (2018, December 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from
“The Importance Of Social Documentary Photography.” GradesFixer, 03 Dec. 2018,
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