On Documentary Photography and Breakthroughs

Untitled 1

I took a photo I liked yesterday.

As I mentioned earlier, I went back to school this week, re-taking a version of a documentary photography course that I took more than five years ago. I did it even though it pushed this week’s workload from “busier than it should be for an off-season” to “absolutely insane” because I wanted to try to deepen and broaden my work, and connecting with a fantastic teacher and the sort of psychopathically devoted photographers who attend classes at the International Center of Photography is a great way to do that.

When you spend all of your time as a craftsman, honing and shaping exactly how you see the world, it can be excruciatingly hard to break your habits. On the job, if it’s possible to turn out 1,000 amazing images in a single day, then that’s what I want to do. To that end, I have sort of a Schroedinger’s Cat attitude — frantic and placid at the exact same time. I want to calm my subjects so much that they completely get over the fact that they’re being photographed, but I never, ever stop moving, stop looking, stop rocking and swaying and stepping back and forth. If someone stops me to talk, I’m likely looking through them or over their shoulder to make sure I never missed anything.

Whereas yesterday, with a documentary photographer hat on, probably the most important thing I did was to put my camera down and just talk to people for hours. I had to make some slight changes in how I composed a photo, but I had to make gigantic changes in myself. I wasn’t sure if I’d break through the crusty walls of a craftsman in just five days, but I did.

Starting a good documentary project is hard. Trying to do the whole thing in two days is virtually impossible, and almost doesn’t make sense. Is two days of shooting a documentary, or is it just a short magazine assignment? Amazing projects like The Ninth Floor are generally measured in months or years — so by that scale do you think Jessica Dimmock got a photo she liked for publication every day? Nope. While my normal pace has me thinking about “How good is the 500th-best photo I took today?” in documentary photography the story matters, and the subjects matter, and that’s it. Excessively beautiful photos can actually hurt the story sometimes. The deeper you’re into it, the longer these periods of just sinking in get — you can go weeks without a photo that would fit the final storyline.

It’s context. If I came back from a wedding and liked one photo from that day, I might jump out a window. When I came back from a day’s shoot yesterday and had taken a photo I liked, I was ecstatic. I’d been proud enough that I had woken up that morning with no idea what I was going to do, and by the end of the day had cut through red tape and gotten to a place few photographers would have access to. I set out to tell an uplifting story about overcoming obstacles and how we help each other along the way — and I did. But I kept myself open to surprise, and when the story deepened and the narrative became more complex I saw that, and I shot it, in what I believe to be a magazine-publishable image.

But I’ve also learned in this class that sometimes you have to keep the best images under your hat, or only allow them to be shown within the full and proper context. Because what really matters are the subjects.

Yesterday Andre mentioned a student who was really excited about getting clearance to go to Haiti after the hurricane devastated the island.

“That’s great,” he said, “why are you going?”

“Because I need these photos for my portfolio!”

If you’re gritting your teeth now, you’ll understand why I’m not showing the photo.

Ashley MacPhee - Full of wisdom and insight. Thank you.

sam hurd - stop being so damn smart. kthnx.

Alex Blackwelder - Wedding photography is so easy. The subject is obvious & they usually always want us there. The direction of the day is obvious. The moments are happy. But everything changes with documentary photography. So many questions are brought up & they are so hard to answer. I’m excited to see what you are working on, if you choose to show it!

Craig Cacchioli - Thought provoking as usual Ryan. People need to know where to draw the line… that student clearly doesn’t. The right thing to do, but for the wrong reason.

Krista Cleary Yagci - *THIS* is why I follow you so closely. There is no other photographer that I do follow as closely. You are in it for more than just that portfolio shot and that’s what I”m all about. I definitely want to hone my skills and be technically advanced like you (with my own style and flair), but I also never want lose sight of the story being told by what I am photographing!

Aphaits - Have you ever shot a wedding that went horribly? (the wedding not the photos) Maybe one where either the bride or groom got cold feet mid-process?

Shauna - Thank you so much for introducing me to Jessica Dimmock.. thanks for sharing your wisdom and gorgeous images. You have a new stalker :)