Documentary/Street Photography- The Truth of the Photograph

Even though there are similarities and differences between documentary and street photography, they both have the aim to inform the viewer and to show the realities of life, whether by documenting an event or by showing people in natural daily life. However with both genres can you always trust the photographs? Are they real, or are they set up/altered?

As viewers we tend to trust photographic images, believing the mechanical apparatus cannot lie. Yet photographs may mislead or deliberately deceive the viewer; the photographer could stage the shoot, alter or enhance the final image; all of these leave us to question what is ‘real’ in an image. An example of misleading imagery is wartime propaganda, where photographs are often used incorrectly just to support what the propaganda is trying to say. This is similar to newspaper photographs, the images can change meaning depending on the title or caption. Both of these examples change the viewers’ reading and understanding of the image and message being given; by misleading the viewer I believe that the image may not be ‘true’, they are being used incorrectly and are not true to the image and its original meaning and purpose.



Robert Capa, a war photographer, often relied on his subject matter just as much as his own style, yet many of his images remain questionable as to their significance as documentary records. ‘Death of a Loyalist Soldier’, a very famous Spanish civil war photograph, has been questioned as fake. Can we trust this image? Research suggests that the picture was staged, it was not taken at the battle site of Cerro Muriano but at Espejo instead; furthermore there is doubt of the identification of the photograph’s subject: Federico Borrell García is known to have been killed at Cerro Muriano, shot while sheltered behind a tree, and he did not greatly resemble the subject of the photograph. However, a recording of Capa himself describing precisely how he took the photograph was released, and so the debate continues about the photograph. Because of this debate I believe the image cannot be trusted, with no true answer the image will always be tainted with the idea it could all be fake.


Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Soldier

We are often faced with the quote, ‘the camera does not lie’, yet some of the most central of ‘documentary photographs’ contain contradictions. An example is Alexander Gardner’s 1869, ‘A Sharpshoot’s Last Stand’, where Gardner moved and rearranged the body of his subject, he did this to heighten the drama of the photograph however then the image is not true and not a real documentation of the events. Another example is Joe Rosenthal, ‘Marines Raising Flag:: Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima’, which had to be restaged . By having these examples it questions the reliability of documentary photography and their aims to present historical events are undermined and not true. Obviously not all documentary photography is like this, there are examples of true records of events but with images like the examples above that have been altered it does leave the viewer questioning which photographs are real and which are not and which can be trusted.


Alexander Gardner, A Sharpshoot’s Last Stand, 1869


Joe Rosenthal, ‘Marines Raising Flag:: Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima

However having said that, does the viewer play a part in the reliability of a photograph? Viewers play a part in constructing what they see, each individual photographer, just as each viewer, has a unique viewpoint of reality. Everyone sees things in a different way, they have personal views and some may even be biased. Now-a-days, growing up with technologies, as viewers we see a range of images continuously through a range of mediums such as TV, film and photography rather than first hand. These different mediums change our view on what’s ‘real’; our realities to a degree are based on the images we have previously seen.

Furthermore with new technologies, such as Photoshop, events may be altered. Photographs often go through post production such as cutting and pasting or computer manipulations; by editing photographs the photographer can highlight key areas of the image, causing focus on the image, altering the reading and understanding of the image. This can be seen not just in documentary and street photography, but also in commercial photography.

Overall I believe that not all documentary and street photographs are ‘real’ however on the most part they are. There will always be ways of changing and manipulating an image and so the viewing of each image should be taken with a pinch of salt and not literally. Viewers should draw on their own experiences when reading photographs and try to be open minded rather than have a biased approach. With old photographs of historical events, there are no ways of finding out if they are truly ‘real’ photographs but they are all the evidence we have of the past and so we should still appreciate the work.


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