The objective of a documentary photographer should be to tell a story, using mainly photographs, about a subject over which he or she has no control. The story may be evolving as it is told, and opportunities to capture some of the relevant stages may occur only once. The photographer must not only see the environment and events from within, focusing on the detailed issues and the people involved, but also from a broader perspective.
The first important stage of creating a photographic documentary is to gain an understanding of the subject matter. This helps to set the overall style and presentation of the documentary record. A well-informed photographer is also better equipped to anticipate what opportunities may arise and how he or she should therefore prepare.
Consider how the subject matter should be approached while always bearing in mind not only the final objective but also your personal interest. Everyone tells as story in their own way and against a background of their interests, environment, culture and experience. Wherever possible, also consider how another photographer might approach the same subject.
When undertaking the photography, look for as many varied points of view and aspects of the story as possible. A story may not unfold in the way one expects, so it is vital to remain as objective as possible and record whatever happens. The most important characteristic of a photographic documentary is honesty. A photographer must never allow his or her own preconceptions to cloud the view of reality. Record what takes place - not what is expected or hoped for. Never distort events or portray them in a less than wholly honest manner.
A documentary photographer has the potential to influence opinion across the readership of a particular newspaper, magazine or website, and therefore carries responsibility for his or her portrayal of a story. People who view the work may know nothing more of the subject than what they draw from the presentation, so what is left out may be as significant as the material included. Complete objectivity is certainly challenging, but a photographer must strive to leave aside personal opinions and prejudices, and political and religious views. The viewer is interested in the story rather than the story tellers opinions, and will interpret the information in the light of their own opinions and background.
Most stories involve people, if only because it is these that are most often recounted. All human beings are interested in the activities and fortunes of others, so capturing some of the key faces and personalities involved is an essential ingredient of the work. This is usually best done by getting close up and involved, and shooting with a wide-angle lens to show the people in their environment. Capture the expressions, the anger, the relief or whatever emotion tells the story. However, it is equally important to tell the broader story. Show where this story is taking place and what the local area is like, and make sure the viewer can place the unfolding events in their full and proper context.
On final consideration when shooting a story is remaining on the right side of the law. Obtain permits or permission where required, and try to keep people on your side. Without co-operation the job is likely to be more difficult, and no photographer wants to become the main story as a consequence of irresponsible actions.
Once all the photographic work has been completed, take some time to consider how best to present the shots in a way that tells the story effectively. This is not an exhibition of the best photographs, but a sequence or compilation of shots that collectively tell a story. Certainly use the best shots from each section of the story, but make sure every stage of the story is told and adequately linked to the previous and next stages. A simple sequential approach is appropriate in some cases, but in others it may be better to present material in a non-sequential manner. Use whatever approach works best for the story and the particular medium of presentation- provided the result is honest. A website presentation may be compiled in a manner quite different from a paper-based version. Captions may be added where necessary, but the very best documentary work should tell the story without the addition of words.