Observation and Investigation for Documentary Photography

If the intention behind a photograph is to produce something photographic, weighted by aesthetic merit, or artistic expression, then it is your observation via the camera that you are most likely going to share in that image.

If the intention is more explanatory or educational, if there is an agenda or message behind your work, then investigation will be required at some point, even if it leads to an observational outcome. Some of the best observational photography work has been made by street photographers, but these don’t necessarily tell a story as much as they act as prompts for the viewer to use to tell a story.

I don’t want to do that, I want to actively TELL the story! I think that goal requires an approach based in investigation.

Within the practice of documentary photography, my agenda is to produce photo essays, long and short form, containing a story or narrative of some kind, something with a beginning, middle, conclusion, resolution, a character arc, an exploration of a place, or of a situation.

Individual photographs work like puzzle pieces for me to join together in a sequence on printed pages, and only a few solo images break away to deserve their own individual printed medium. Observation offers something on the surface level, but it is through active investigation that the best documentary observations may emerge; peeling back the layers until insight is revealed.

Working on these stories requires a process of both research and practice research, which means I take time to learn about the potential for a situation but ultimately will shape the final project around my own experiences once I’ve stepped into the field by means of practice research; in other words learning by doing, seeing, hearing, and in a best-case scenario producing insight based on lived experience as opposed to building on a foundation of pre-judged concepts.

If you spend a long time before working on a story learning with precision exactly what is going to happen, mapping out blueprints for your project before you enter the field, via other people’s accounts, and other people’s research, then your resulting photographs will only serve to illustrate existing ideas. Your project may be a great set of photographs to decorate that secondary research you started out by reading, but it won’t offer much new to the matter at hand. You won’t surprise yourself, and you won’t offer any surprises to someone already familiar with the subject.

This is like basing a holiday on a tourist guide. You hit all the named spots, but those are just places that someone else enjoyed and recommended. You discover nothing new for yourself, even something everyone already knew about – to me this doesn’t seem fulfilling although it may be for some. I’d rather see all of those same sights but stumble upon them myself as a result of exploration than as a result of someone else telling me where to go.

Of course, both methods still have the potential for the unexpected, but one offers a story to return home with that has very little deviation from the guide it was based on, and the other offers a unique journey, with all kinds of little mistakes and deviations, even if the destinations end up identical.

I don’t want to retell someone else’s story. I don’t want to lock into a set of rails and pass by photo opportunities like a safari. To me, photography as a means of practice research works best when it is conducted as primary research. Going out into the world, finding your own problems based on that experience to solve. Studying places, meeting people, asking your own questions based on your own insight and experience, and having images emerge organically from that exploration offers a great chance at those images being surprising, fresh, and a new contribution to that story.

It is very unlikely for two people to have identical experiences in this way, and even if they somehow did their interpretation through the lens would be very distinct.

Allowing for non-rigidity and space to improvise is key even within a mapped out, thoroughly researched, and blueprinted project. If you’re only photographing what you can imagine based on secondary research then you are bound by the limits of your imagination and someone else’s experience. That’s no match for discovery: some of my best photographs show things I could never have imagined and set up and are instead things I observed at the moment.

I will usually start out on a project based on something that has interested me, something I want to explore further and produce a visual record of. I can come up with a set of questions I want to try and answer, but in seeking those answers I will always find development into new directions and more threads to unravel.

If you start off photographing and think you already have all the answers then what is it you actually want to accomplish with the images? You will be blind to the possibilities, the photographs will have no chance of being anything more than the sum of what you already know, and fail to take into account the element of chance that comes from all the things you don’t know.

I think that bringing my curiosity to a situation rather than generating it lends itself to an audience of people wanting resolution to their own curiosity, rather than looking for prompts without real resolution. Ask questions, leave with answers.

I want to satiate my audience’s curiosity vicariously, for them to see through my eyes the way I have interrogated a situation, to see the details I offer as resolution, not to open up questions I never intend to answer. For certain a good photo can pose a question, but a well-sequenced story can also answer that question, and those images can exist together as a complete, fulfilling package.

Of course implementation of any of these ideas will depend on the nature of the story you are telling, the kind of storyteller you are, the kind of audience you’re trying to communicate with, and so many other factors.

If I were to make photographs with the agenda of demonstrating an issue with road infrastructure for the local council then I would take a very different research approach beforehand than if I wanted to document a community’s struggle with austerity measures.

For one of these, going in with knowledge of locations, incidents, and so on will give a very clear blueprint to where I photograph and what, with some leeway for further exploration but mostly that would be a solely geographic journey.

For the other, I would want to be entirely open to locations and situations I could never imagine or discover through secondary research. I would need to go wherever pulling on the threads of that community takes me. Manifestations of social issues in ways I can already think of would result in images that are based on prejudice, having made up my mind before the outset.

In order to accomplish discovery rather than creativity, curiosity must be a driving influence. Open to the world and then directed observations as you explore, but always revisited with that original open mind to see if anything was overlooked, if only for the sake of anyone wanting to pick up from where you decide you’ve finished.

About the author: Simon King is an English photographer and photojournalist, currently working on long-form documentary projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, New Exit Group, and on Instagram.