The Perils of ‘Creative Documentary Photography’


Eyebrows were raised in the photojournalism community yesterday when World Press Photo — an industry stalwart — announced the creation of a new contest that would “not have rules limiting how images are produced.” The contest would allow staged and manipulated images – dubbed “creative documentary photography” – in support of contemporary storytelling.

One the one hand, this is outrageous. It’s more than a matter of semantics to reappropriate the meaning of “journalism” and “documentary.” Lives have literally been lost in the pursuit of the ideals espoused by these words.

But let’s take a step back and acknowledge that the contest is still unnamed and that “creative documentary photography” is, perhaps, a working title for an unfinished product.

In film and literature, creative license has been exercised for decades. “Historical fiction” and “based on a true story” are compact and effective means of storytelling. They might have an air of truthiness to them, but that doesn’t mean their efficacy as storytelling devices is diminished.


The 2016 Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, “Spotlight,” is a perfect example. Although the writers and director took artistic liberties in telling the true story of the Boston Diocese sex scandal, the end result provided both compelling entertainment and increased awareness of a notorious issue that has plagued the Catholic Church for decades (and by the way, had the support of the actual journalists including Marty Baron, now Editor of the Washington Post).

Of course, the film wasn’t presented as a documentary, but audiences are familiar with this form of storytelling and sophisticated enough to recognize its limits. In other words, they are visually literate with the genre. They might not know precisely what is and is not historically accurate, but the director’s vision and end goal can be realized nevertheless.

Strangely, we don’t really have such a vocabulary in photography. We have the “editorial” and the “staged narrative,” but neither of those forms are used in a way the film/literature counterpart might be — at least not insofar as the documentary community is concerned (insert snarky McCurry joke here).

Documentary photographers are a passionate bunch. They work incredibly hard, often with paltry compensation, to cover topics that are important to them. They sometimes use photo contests as a way to shine a spotlight on issues that are unknown or ignored by the public, and treasure the increased exposure that winning can provide. There is no effective storytelling without an audience.

You might remember the viral video “Kony 2012” which garnered over 100 million views and raised awareness of a virtually unknown warlord, Joseph Kony, who terrorized swaths of the Congo and the Central African Republic. The video was criticized for inaccuracies and oversimplification of the issues, but from a storytelling perspective it was a massive success that led to military intervention.

At the time it was released, I spoke at an Illinois Press Photographers Association event and rhetorically asked why hadn’t a photojournalist created such a viral sensation? Are we so boxed in by convention that we allow ourselves to be lapped by other creative enterprise? Numerous ethical (and moral) discussions will undoubtedly emerge from the discussion, but that is a good thing.

Time will tell whether World Press Photo can successfully navigate and perpetuate “creative documentary photography.” I hope that they rethink the name, but I also hope that photographers consider the rapidly evolving landscape of storytelling and how this experiment may prove to be a valuable one for the industry.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.