7 Documentary Photography Tips to Help You Start a Project
Documentary photography requires skill, determination, time and a lot of times money but it's definitely one of the most rewarding genres of photography. There are no guides or rules to start with documentary photography—every photographer has their own style and working methods. It's an art form, but to help you get started, I'll tell you how I made my own photo documentaries “Behind The Redwood Curtain” and the award-winning “Grey Summer Garden”...
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1. Finding a subject for your photo documentary
It all starts with finding a subject and the best photo documentaries are about something (or someone) you’re really interested in—and it doesn't have to be a spectacular or exciting subject. Keep it simple, especially when it's your first one. Personal photo documentaries are more interesting than assigned projects. You get to pick the subject and if you pick something you're really passionate about, people will see it in the resulting photos. Documentary photography is all about passion.
I'm interested in locations or communities that most people don't notice or don't want to notice. The idea comes to me by accident. Most of the subjects of my photo documentaries, I stumbled upon while reading or browsing the internet. It starts with an article about a location or community and then it grows into an idea. For my series “Behind the Redwood Curtain”, the idea came when watching a documentary about the Redwood Forests in California. The idea for “Grey Summer Garden” came when I moved close to where I shot the series. Suddenly, I was living across the street from a community I had heard and read so much about.
And something both series have in common is the human story. When looking for a documentary photography subject, I think it's important to find that human story. I could've just gone to the Redwoods and made a documentary about the forests but people always make it a lot more interesting. Try to find those stories.
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2. Focus your story
When you find a subject, make sure to narrow it down so it's easier to go deeper. Not only that, it will also make it easier to shoot your documentary and keep the travel distances shorter, because ideally, you should be able to walk everywhere.
For “Grey Summer Garden”, I just had to walk out the door and I was right where I needed to be. The area itself was small so I got to know it really fast and the people saw me walking there every evening, which also made it easier to connect. So, remember to focus your story... narrow it down.
3. Documentary photography research
Once you have your subject, it's time to research. Learn everything there is to know about it. You can use the internet but of course, also a library and magazines. The more you know about your subject, the easier it will be to get the shots that matter to tell the story for your documentary. When researching, you'll also find interesting angles that you might not have thought about. I change the angle and how I want to approach the story many times before I actually start shooting. That's normal in documentary photography.
If you're going to photograph a special location, you'll have to find and contact the right people and ask if you're allowed to shoot there. For my series that never was a problem because I shot everything on the streets and public spaces.
And I use something else to research the places I want to go to: Google Streetview. It's the most important tool when researching a location that requires me to travel. For my series “Behind the Redwood Curtain”, I had to go to the United States and I could only afford to go three weeks. Because I didn't want spend one of those three weeks scouting for locations, I spent hours on Google Streetview, virtually traveling through the area to find interesting locations. It helped to use my time more efficiently when I actually started photographing. It’s a great tool for documentary photography.
I even ended up making a photo series using screenshots from Google Streetview called “You Are Not You Anymore”.
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How long do you need to shoot a documentary photography project? Usually, the longer the better. That means you'll get to know the area and the people, make connections, and you'll learn more about your subject while photographing. So ideally, months or even years will result in a better and deeper documentary. For Grey Summer Garden, I spent three months walking around the same neighborhood. After a few weeks, people started to get used to me and it felt less awkward to take photos.
Now, sometimes you don't have a lot of time, then it's important to research well. Use your time efficiently... When I finally left to photograph “Behind the Redwood Curtain”, I knew exactly where I wanted to go and even what photos I needed to tell the story... And that gets us to the shot list.
5. Shot list
When working on a documentary photography project, always make a shot list. It should be a list of the types of shots you need to tell the story. Also, think about light and mood. Basically, you need to visualize what you want the end result to look like. My shot list for “Behind The Redwood Curtain” looked something like this:
Faces / Close ups
Single person in street
Stores / Clerks
Soft light / clouded
When you have a shot list it's a lot easier to focus when you're walking around taking photos. Of course, don't limit yourself to the shots on the list. Keep an open mind for new ideas. A photo documentary grows and changes even while you're shooting it.
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When I create a photo documentary, I'm always interested in the dynamics between people and their surroundings. It's something that you can see in all my documentary projects. The combination of portraits and landscapes just works for me. To create a balance between those two types of shots, it's important to connect with people. Find out more about them and the location where you are. Even if you're not going to take a photo of the person, it's always interesting to learn from. People will give you new ideas or angles for the story.
7. Funding a documentary photography project
To finish up, a short word about funding your documentary photography project. The easiest way of course, is funding it yourself but you need to think about it already when looking for a subject.
When you only have a limited amount of money, you don't want to travel halfway across the world. Find something close by and something you already know. You don't need to go far to find an interesting subject!
Also, already thing what you want to do with the project when it's finished? Make a book or exhibition? It might be a good idea to start a crowdfunding campaign for your documentary photography before you even start shooting. I've always funded my documentary projects myself and when they were finished, I tried to get them published and entered them in photo competitions.
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Making your own photo documentary is one of the best ways to improve your photography because you'll do a lot more than just taking photos. It involves planning, organising and connecting with other people. If you're really serious about it, it's also one of the best ways to get exposure. If the end result is good, people will notice it.
Let me know in the comments if you're thinking about making your own photo documentary. I'm always glad to help or give you some advice...