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Real talk

D-Photo speaks with some of Aotearoa’s documentary experts about shooting the world around us

22 April 2020

Tracey Robinson, Nikon DX3, 24mm, 1/30s, f/5.6, ISO 1000

D-Photo speaks with some of Aotearoa’s documentary experts about shooting the world around us

Great photos pack a punch no matter when they are shot, and some of the most poignant images in photographic history fall in the category of documentary. Although it is often touted as one of the most difficult genres to work in, it is also one of the most rewarding — we talk with experts in the field about shooting reality with style, substance, and standards.

TRACEY ROBINSON, NIKON D3X, 32MM, 1/160S, F/5.6, ISO 400

TRACEY ROBINSON, NIKON D700, 50MM, 1/125S, F/2.8, ISO 640

What it is ‘Documentary photography’ is the style of photography that brings viewers insight into the world around them. From big political events, local community happenings, right down to personal interactions, almost anything can be the subject of documentary photography as long as it is presented with authenticity.

Rotorua photographer Tracey Robinson, who was named Documentary Photographer of the Year at the 2017 Iris Awards, sees the style as being not only a presentation of something as it happens but also a means of storytelling through which a viewer comes to understand the subject. In this way, it differs from many other styles of photography, as the photographer has very little control over what they will be shooting.

“With portraiture, you sit with the subject and talk to them about their interests and their likes and who they are, and you try and bring out some of that personality in the image,” Tracey explains. “Whereas, with documentary, often you don’t even speak to the people; you know nothing about them.”

She likens the style to a form of voyeurism in which the photographer is an eyewitness to events but stays removed from them. To that end, she advises approaching a documentary shoot without any preconceptions, allowing events to unfold organically.

What to shoot Finding a subject for documentary is both simple and difficult. On one hand, reality is everywhere you look; anything could be a subject. On the other, you need to find something that is going to resonate with viewers, whether that’s because it’s important, because it’s extraordinary, or because it’s relatable. 

For Tracey, the key is finding something that connects with you on a personal level and allowing your feelings to guide the shoot.

“I’m drawn to a scene by an emotional tug; there will be something reflected in the scene which will speak to me,” she says. “Often, I don’t even know what it is until afterwards in post-production, when I realize, ‘Ah, that’s what I was seeing’.

“It’s an instinctive thing.”

TRACEY ROBINSON, NIKON D700, 70MM, 1/250S, F/7.1, ISO 4000

Work with what you’ve got One of the biggest challenges of documentary shooting for photographers who are used to having more control over their images is the inability to set anything up: light, composition, posing — it all has to happen naturally. Often, this means making the most of imperfect situations, as Tracey recalls with one of her award-winning shots of a dog giving birth by caesarean operation: “The puppy was being pulled out of the mother’s womb, and he was covered in birth fluid, all slippery and wet. The surgeon had those big operating lights overhead, so, of course, you’re going to get specular highlights, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about that; you can’t say to the vet, ‘Can you just hold that over there …’”

While there may be nothing you can do at the time, a photographer can shoot in a manner that gives the most flexibility. Tracey recommends learning to shoot in manual, rather than relying on the camera to know how to handle difficult lighting, and always shooting in RAW, so that you will have the most image data to work with in post-production.

For the caesarean puppy shot, she underexposed slightly and was able to drag back the highlights a bit in editing. But when it comes to Photoshop and documentary work, a light touch is all that can be allowed: subtle lightening, darkening, sharpening, or cropping. Preserving the veracity of the image is paramount, so only darkroom staples are acceptable with documentary images.

Kent Blechynden, Image from Sempy’s Xmas, Canon 5D Mark III, 16mm, 1/80s, f/2.8, ISO 6400

Kent Blechynden, image from Sempy’s Xmas, Canon 5D Mark III, 16mm, 1/40s, f/3.5, ISO 800

Kent Blechynden, image from Sempy’s Xmas, Canon 5D Mark III, 16mm, 1/30s, f/4, ISO 800

Picking a project ot all documentary photography requires complete detachment from your subject; in fact, some of the best examples of the genre would never have come to be without the photographer forming respectful relationships with the subjects involved. 

Whether it be a long-form project that involves deep engagement or an intimate essay with the artist invited into someone’s life, certain stripes of documentary photography require personal investment. Wellington photographer Kent Blechynden won the Best Feature / Photographic Essay award at this year’s Voyager Media Awards with just such a project.

Shot in 2017, Sempy’s Xmas is an intimate look at an isolated, ageing New Plymouth punk rocker and the unconventional-but-gregarious celebrations of his close friends. Although friendly with Michael ‘Semp’ Semple already, Kent hadn’t intended on turning him into the subject of a photo essay, but the project unfolded in natural documentary style.

“I wasn’t doing anything on Christmas Day, so I went around to the house with the aim to have a yak and make a portrait of him, because he’s an interesting guy,” the photographer explains. “I just ended up taking a few more photos during the day, and I thought [that] this could make a nice photo essay, but, at the start of the day, I hadn’t intended it to be one.”

Dealing with people nother of Kent’s photo essays was approached in a similarly familiar way; on discovering that the barbers who trimmed his beard every week were Syrian refugees, the photographer asked if he could spend a Saturday documenting their shop.

“I was a local customer, so they were familiar with me,” he says. “I wasn’t just someone who walked in off the street. Sometimes you have to build up trust with your subjects.”

As the barbers knew him, Kent was given free rein to shoot as he liked throughout the day. But he still made sure to maintain any personal boundaries his subjects required, such as not taking photos of some of the Muslim women, out of respect for Islamic custom. 

“You’ve got to pick your moments; some people don’t like to be photographed, so there were some photos I wanted to do but couldn’t,” Kent says. “So many people are so sensitive around people with cameras — they think you’re going to do something nasty with the photos. You’ve got build up trust; tell them where these images might appear, get them to look at your website, show that you are a photographer.”

Kent Blechynden, image from Newtown Barbers, Canon 5D Mark III, 90mm, 1/200s, f/6.3, ISO 3200

Kent Blechynden, image from Newtown Barbers, Canon 5D Mark III, 16mm, 1/200s, f/7.1, ISO 3200

Kent Blechynden, image from Newtown Barbers, Canon 5D Mark III, 18mm, 1/250s, f/6.3, ISO 3200

Sequencing and editing ltimately, documentary photography tells a story, and it doesn’t matter how authentic your captures are if you can’t display them in a way that helps viewers understand your subject. Choosing which photographs to include in your project, and the order in which they will be seen, is of primary importance.

“If you get the order wrong, it completely changes the photo essay,” Kent cautions. “You have to have a beginning, middle, and an end. Just like a movie.”

Using a variety of shot types — wide shots to show the scene, portraits of people, close-ups of details — will help viewers examine the complexities of a situation. We humans are wired for storytelling, so ordering images to create a narrative can be a relatively instinctual process, but that doesn’t mean that it should be done thoughtlessly.

“I’m the sort of guy who obsesses over my photos,” says Kent. “I can edit a whole photo series in half an hour and get it 80 per cent right, but, the more I look at it, the more I change it around. 

“With time, you are able to think about it a bit more deeply.”

Chris Watson, Running the Line, champion image, 2017 National Photojournalism competition

Martin Sanders, Awaiting his flock, second place Street and Social Commentary, 2017 National Photojournalism competition

Photojournalism Photojournalism is a close cousin to documentary photography. Both strive to capture an unfiltered truth through the lens. The two genres are so close, in fact, that the line between them is a blurred one at best — sometimes photojournalism can be documentary photography, and vice versa. 

One of the generally accepted distinctions between the two styles is that documentary photography is interested in exploring a subject and its implications deeply, whereas photojournalism aims to convey the truth of a situation as quickly and clearly as possible. In this way, documentary photography is often associated with an image series, whereas photojournalism regularly does its work in a single frame.

The New Brighton Photography Club runs the annual New Zealand National Photojournalism Competition, encouraging photographers throughout the country to submit their most compelling photojournalistic images. The competition has two categories — one focusing on sporting and action shots, the other on street photography–style shots and images expressing social commentary. The overall champion photographer takes home the Ted Walker Memorial Trophy.

In both categories, the judges prioritize storytelling over all else, seeking images that effectively convey the truth of the situation through a single frame and caption. Nadine Campbell, vice president of the club, says that a winning image is one that inspires a “wow” from those that see it.

“It must elicit an emotional response, whether it is good, bad, or uncomfortable,” she explains. “One that can tell a story without the caption.”

The competition advocates a photojournalistic ethic with regard to processing, as with documentary photography, with only minimal cropping, colour, density, sharpening, and contrast adjusting acceptable. Changes involving filters, cloning, removing elements, composite edits, staging, or the alteration of the truthful story of the image are strictly forbidden.

Allan Fleischmann, Altitude, second place Sport and Action, 2017 National Photojournalism competition

Newell Grenfell, Wash down, third place, Sport and Action, 2017 National Photojournalism competition