What does it mean to be a documentary photographer today? What defines the profession? How has this branch of photography evolved? Since 2015, the Parisian Photo Doc fair, which takes place this year between May 12 and 14, has foregrounded, and offered for sale, the latest manifestations of documentary photography.
This year’s theme—The Self-Portrait: Towards a Commonality of the Work—takes a closer look at the evolution of the notion of documentary photography over time and across genres. The mid-twentieth-century neutrality has given way to deliberate subjectiveness coupled with the erosion of boundaries between photographic genres and other mediums, which opens access to new ways of reporting on the world.
Porosity of genres
The notion of documentary photography has broken out of the confines of the genre and spilled into new territories. “The ‘documentary style,’ as defined by Walker Evans in the 1930s, in the sense of neutral, direct testimony, is exploring new horizons in contemporary documentary work,” comments Fannie Escoulen, Head of the Department of Photography at the Ministry of Culture of France, former exhibition curator, and co-founder of BAL, an exhibition space dedicated to the documentary image.
“The boundaries had shifted since then, and the photographer’s approach can be much more subjective, closer to the subject. There are different forms of documentary photography. We have moved away from the ‘dogma’ imposed by Evans, even if many photographers still claim to follow the master’s legacy,” adds Escoulen.
Since its birth in the late nineteenth century, documentary photography has been reinventing itself in response to history and its crises. As historian Guillaume Blanc has recently reminded us in his history of documentary photography in Blind, “[the discipline] is the site of technical, formal, ethical, and cultural confluences that have shaped and redefined it over the years.”
Charlotte Flossaut, founder and artistic director of Photo Doc, confirms that documentary photography today has abandoned its former neutrality: “It’s the other way around: these days, we are seeing a 180-degree turn toward subjectivity. There is this relationship to the intimate—rather than to intimacy, which has to do with privacy—to the intimate, which is a way of relating to others, a form of interaction that structures the self within society. This new type of documentary photography speaks to otherness; it is photography structured through otherness and in the recognition of the power of the other.”
Although the boundaries between different approaches to the image are now dissolving, the oppositions had, for a long time, been very pronounced, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, when “the various photographic styles and aesthetics—‘art photography,’ ‘conceptual photography’…etc.—were opposed to so-called ‘documentary photography,’” reminds us Escoulen.
“The artist Morvarid K, whom we hosted on two occasions, attempts visual experiments that would have been inconceivable, even unacceptable, under the old deontology of so-called photography of the real,” recalls Flossaut who has witnessed the shift in photographic approaches within Photo Doc. For example, in 2022, Photo Doc and F. Compagnie presented a photo-documentary theatre play based on the work of the photographer Flavio Tarquinio about a couple the artists had met at a bar in a working-class neighborhood of Lille.
“This has grown exponentially. The definition of the term ‘documentary’ has evolved only because the present generation of photographers are starting to photograph differently. It is thanks to the practice,” observes the artistic director.
The 7th edition of Photo Doc also marks the maturity of an original project set up two years ago in parallel with the fair: namely, the creation of an Observatory of New Documentary Photographic Writing, led by the scholar and photographer Christine Delory-Momberger. As in a laboratory, researchers and specialists examine new forms of creation and generate an in-depth study of how the documentary approach has evolved in response to its time.
The French photographer Hortense Soichet, who is exhibiting one of the photographs from her collective project Esperem, produced with the women of the “Mémoire Gitane” photo workshop in Carcassonne, represents this new documentary writing. This two-year-long project, exhibited as part of the collaboration between Photo Doc and the Fictions Documentaires festival, was a turning point in her approach to documentary photography:
“I had no obligation to work with people, but meeting these women sparked the need to do a project together,” said Soichet. “I have carried on this work of co-creation. This mindset has become a staple in my work: I am driven by the expectations of the people I interact with.”
Responding to an evolving market
The breakdown of distinctions between various fields of aesthetics, which are becoming increasingly hybrid, with photographers feeling less locked into a single format—“a photojournalist is free to think of their work as ‘art,’” notes Escoulen—is further explained by the concurrent adaption to the evolving photography market.
“It’s a known fact,” she comments, “that a press photographer can no longer make a living as a press photographer; this is why photographic disciplines are becoming increasingly porous.”
The reason why Photo Doc was founded as a fair was thus to offer documentary photographers an alternative forum to institutions like the press or museums. Selling documentary photography to collectors? The idea would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
“In 2015, when I first mentioned the idea of Photo Doc as a commercial event, that is to say, offering documentary photographs for sale to photography collectors, I immediately was met with curiosity but above all of embarrassment and incomprehension. I was told: ‘How can we sell images that address suffering in the world?,’” recalls Flossaut.
“When they buy a photograph at Photo Doc, collectors connect with the stories evoked in the image. What they acquire is a photograph that makes an impact in the world. Documentary photography means taking part in the transformation of the world.”
This year, twenty-one exhibitors, mostly galleries, will be present at the fair. To Flossaut, this spells success, proving that the market is interested in documentary photography: “We don’t get any commission on the works sold; the spaces are rented out to the exhibitors. But if there were no sales, they would not come back. But the opposite is true.”
“Photography has more than ever its place in society”
The new forms of documentary photography are now welcomed at art festivals and galleries. Frameworks of support are designed to assist photographers. For example, the Centre National des Arts Plastiques (Cnap) supports professional photographers and artists in the production of a documentary project “by giving them the financial means to develop a body of work over long term,” says Escoulen.
“Radioscopy of France,” a major national photojournalism commission, managed by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, is one such program intended to support documentary photography.
“Even if the target recipients are photojournalists, we know that the disciplinary boundaries are thin. It is a historic commission, which has supported some 200 photographers developing long-term projects on France. And I know that many of those who have benefited from it will continue their work beyond the commission,” says Escoulen, who also places emphasis on women’s representation in photography, something she considers to be an “encouraging” development.
Constantly transforming, developing new forms and formats, and experiencing an ongoing revolution, documentary photography reveals itself, now more than ever, to be essential to our understanding of the world and of others. “One might say that documentary photography is photography in the broadest sense of the word, and it is part and parcel of society,” notes Escoulen. “In the age of AI, it is terrifying to see that representation of reality can escape our control. We must be vigilant about the use of this tool and its potential for disinformation.”
Salon Photo Doc and conferences, from 12 to 14 May 2023, at the Halle des Blancs Manteaux, 48 rue Vieille du Temple, 75004 Paris, France.