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  • Writer's pictureIan Miller

Social documentary photography

Social documentary photography is a form of photography that aims to capture the world around us with a social and/or environmental focus 1. It is a type of documentary photography that aims to draw the public’s attention to ongoing social issues 1. Social documentary photography may often be devoted to ‘social groups’ with socio-economic and cultural similarities, showing living or working conditions perceived as shameful, discriminatory, unjust or harmful 1. It may also refer to a socially critical genre of photography dedicated to showing the life of underprivileged or disadvantaged people.

Social documentary photography has its roots in the 19th-century work of Henry Mayhew, Jacob Riis, and Lewis Hine, but began to take further form through the photographic practice of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the USA. The FSA hired photographers and writers to report and document the plight of poor farmers. Under Roy Stryker, the Information Division of the FSA adopted a goal of “introducing America to Americans.” Many noted Depression-era photographers were fostered by the FSA project, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks. The photographers documented the situation of poor farmers, whose economic existence was threatened, and created a new style with photographic documentation of social problems. FSA made 250,000 images of rural poverty, but only about half survive. These are now housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress and online. Photojournalism and social documentary photography are two closely related genres of photography that share many similarities but also have some key differences. Photojournalism is a type of photography that is focused on capturing current events and news stories. The goal of photojournalism is to tell a story through images, often in the context of a news article or publication. Photojournalists are often on the front lines of breaking news stories, capturing images that help to inform the public about what is happening in the world around them. Photojournalism is often characterized by its immediacy, with photographers working quickly to capture images that can be published in a timely manner.

Social documentary photography, on the other hand, is a type of photography that is focused on capturing images that tell a story about a particular social issue or phenomenon. Social documentary photographers often work on long-term projects that explore a particular theme or issue in depth. The goal of social documentary photography is to raise awareness about social issues and to encourage people to think critically about the world around them. Social documentary photography is often characterized by its depth and complexity, with photographers working over extended periods of time to capture images that tell a nuanced story.

In summary, while both photojournalism and social documentary photography share many similarities, they differ in their focus and approach. Photojournalism is focused on capturing current events and news stories, while social documentary photography is focused on exploring social issues and phenomena in depth.

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