Documentary/Street Photography- Differences and Similarities

Some people would argue that street photography is the same as documentary photography, because they are documenting something, their surroundings and the people. Others would argue that photojournalism is documentary photography as the photographer is documenting something and telling a story.

I have decided to look into the differences and similarities between street and documentary photography, trying to define both genres.

Documentary Photography

Wikipedia says documentary photography, “usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle significant and historical events. It is typically covered in professional photojournalism (the practice of communicating news by photographs, especially in magazines.), but it may also be an amateur, artistic, or academic pursuit. The photographer attempts to produce truthful, objective, and usually candid photography of a particular subject, most often pictures of people.”

This genre of photography can be seen as the documentation of an event. Photographers are often trying to tell a story either by a single photograph or a series of images. Documentary photography encompasses landscapes and portraits, and especially when it is humanist photography.

A documentary photographer is deeply concerned and motivated about the subject, sometimes conducting prior research and forming opinions about the subject or issue, in order to raise awareness of a situation or event. The documentary photographer has an agenda, they narrow down the choices of whom/what to photograph based on that agenda. An example of this is Martin Parr, a documentary photographer who has also been recognised and embraced by the art world because of his conceptual thinking. Parr only shoots what is relevant to the particular series that he is working on at the time, such as ‘the mundane and boring’ or the ‘cheap and nasty tastes’.


Street Photography

Wikipedia defines street photography as, “a type of documentary photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places such as streets, parks, beaches, malls, political conventions and other settings.” The dictionary defines candid as; 1 truthful and straightforward, 2 (of a photograph of a person) taken informally, especially without the subject’s knowledge.

A.D. Coleman (an American photography critic and author) says, “more and more photographers [have taken to] the streets with concerns that [are] not those of the reporter but rather those of the novelist and poet—a search for resonant contrasts, rich metaphors, and found dramatic scenarios.”

Street photography can often be seen as a point and shoot method of photography, taking images that intrigue the photographer, these images are often not planned, they are spontaneous, yet generate some type of emotion or feeling towards the image. Street photography is concerned about the instant, documentary is concerned about the sequence, the image normally reflects something that occurs at that moment that was not planned. There are no rules, expectations, limitations or steps of order with street photography. People can often be seen in Street photography, interacting or alone in some particular environment, capturing humans in their natural habitat, relationships between strangers or between people and their surroundings, all unposed. The images speak for themselves, however one may not know where or when.

By asking a stranger for permission to photograph them in the street, instantly makes it a portrait, street photographers wander the streets watching, observing, hoping that something will occur before them.



There are visual similarities between documentary and street photography, however there are also differences. It can also be argued that Street Photographs can and often do, ‘acquire’ value as documentary images, especially with the passage of time, because they can offer a glimpse as to how people ‘looked’ in the past. It’s how to define which type of photography is adopted for each photograph that is the issue; some photographs could be categorised as both whereas others are clearly one genre.

There are many photographers who are either one genre or the other, but there are some that could be seen as both; I want to look into the different photographers and their work to see where they are categorised and whether I believed this is right.

Street Photography is all about realising “a truth” compared to Documentary photography which is all about making us aware of “The Truth”. However sometimes can this truth be questioned? Can these photographs, documenting events or candid moments, be seen as real and believable? Or are they set up and used to create a reaction from the audience? I want to look into these ideas and the truth behind photographs.


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