Documentary Photography’s Obsession with Dehumanizing

I am beginning to have a problem with the documentary photography world in general. Not with every documentary photographer, but with the established standards of what is good documentary photography.

My problem is this, if you want to be recognized as a talented documentary photographer you not only have to be pursuing a story about, violence, suffering, poverty, mistreatment, neglect, racism, war, famine, inequality or any other item on the vast list of evils in the world, you also need to be showing the people involved at their lowest moments.

I am rather disgusted by the silent encouragement documentary photographers receive from the awarding bodies to gravitate to and bring to light the darkest and lowest parts of the human experience.

While I do think that these things need coverage and it takes courage to be in those places and document those things. The reality is that in those horrible situations there are also stories of hope and inspiration that provide balance. In every bad situation people are working against the flow of evil and succeeding, even if on small levels. There are people who are surviving and thriving in bad situations whose stories don’t receive the attention they deserve because they don’t fit the documentary photography mold.

The worst part is that there are photographers and filmmakers telling these stories that don’t receive the recognition they deserve because they are not focused on the “grim glory” that wins documentary photographers awards.

My problem with the current obsession with the grim is this. It is very hard not to cross the line from documenting to dehumanizing. So often documentary photography reduces an individual’s story to a single image of suffering that blends into the group of images about a societal problem. People are reduced to actors on the stage of social drama, to be used to draw the ire and outrage of the public.

While bringing light and attention to issues that are affecting people is good. I feel that reducing a persons story a single moment of any kind in relation to an injustice is simply adding another injustice to the list of things they have endured.

I would like to see the documentary photography community move from celebrating and rewarding the grim to celebrating and rewarding the inspirational stories that encourage the audience to aspire to something greater and to believe that changes can happen and injustice will not always prevail. I would like to see people valued beyond the shock value that their circumstances can generate for a photographer looking to make a name for themselves.

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