Personal Documentary Photography: What and Why

Chick's GBS Adventure, Chick Lehrer, Guillian-Barre Syndrome, GBS

Over the past two years I have worked on two personal documentary projects. The first is a short “day in the life” documentary of my parents after they had moved into an assisted living apartment. It was shot over the course of 4 days as part of a photojournalism workshop. The second, a longer and even more personal story, as I followed the first four months of my husbands slow recovery from Gillian-Barre Syndrome.

Both of these projects were extremely rewarding. These images not only have special meaning to me, but from them have emerged a small set of images that each stand on their own as fine photographs. In these photographs, I had unique access to intimate and subtle moments, and it was that unique access that produced the very best of the images.

What is Personal Documentary Photography?

  • You are engaged in the experience!
  • Key elements
    • Personal to you
    • Close access
    • Portrays a story
    • Images about the experience
  • Personal Documentary is NOT
    • I was here
    • Images of something

The challenge of a Personal Documentary project is to use the trust afforded by personal relationships to take your best photographs. These are not snapshots or “I was there” photographs. These images need to pull together all the components that create a great photograph – story, light, color, gesture, framing, line, position, tonal contrasts, and the relationships between objects – to tell us about something for which you have a front row seat.

Why Practice Personal Documentary Photography?

  • For yourself
    • Honor you life, your family, your adventures
    • Keep you memories strong
    • See your own growth as a photographer
    • Practice
  • For the next generation
    • Keep stories alive
  • Gateway to crating involving photo-journalistic work
    • Telling stories – any time, any where
    • Getting in closer
    • Making connections

I spent two weeks this past November traveling through Japan with Sam Abell, a retired National Geographic photographer and mentor of mine. Sam believes strongly in keeping a photographic diary. He uses all the same care and skill capturing images for his diary as for his assignments. He believes that there is great power in documenting your daily life and those around you. As an extension of writers keeping a written journal, it makes sense for photographers to keep a photographic journal.

When you practice personal documentary photography, you should make prints or books of your images. No one will be able to find how you have documented your life and those around you if you keep them on your hard drives. Print them, even as small sizes, as a time capsule, and leave them in a box to be discovered for the next generation to find and cherish.

What is unique about Personal Documentary Photography

  • Unique access
  • Strong emotional motivation
  • Ability to capture intimate and first-person moments
  • Allows you to get in touch with making images about the experience

Personal work may be the most important work that you will do. Every professional photo-journalist that I have met has expressed to me a passion, a calling, to tell the story about a cause. Joe Sartre is using his photo ark project to “document biodiversity, show what’s at stake and to get people to care while there’s still time.” Matt Black’s haunting black and white work explores poverty and “the connections between migration, poverty, agriculture, and the environment in his native rural California and in southern Mexico”. Gerd Ludwig explained during his workshop how he shoots to tell the story and has spend much of his recent career documenting the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. For each of these incredibly talented photographers, these topics are more than just an assignment, they have a personal long-term passion for saving bio-diversity, the economy of Central California, and the fall of the USSR.

Though we are but mere mortals in the photographic (and journalistic) world, we too can create projects for which we have a deep personal connection – our families, neighborhood, trips, and friends – to create powerful bodies of work with deep meaning for yourselves and those you care for.

What do you mean by Images about…

  • Showing an emotion
    • love, anger, frustration, friendship
  • Showing a situation
    • success, tragedy, learning, sharing, fatigue
  • Showing an action
    • progress, hard-work, sense of time, sense of weight

How will others know that it is Personal work?

Others may not know that the work you create is a personal relationship. However, the perspective and access that you have to create personal work gets you close and allows you to capture intimate moments from an internal perspective. The great WWII photo-journalist Robert Capa is often quoted as saying: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Capa worked in the trenches, embedded with troops he was covering. You will see this approach to other great photo journalism such as the amazing body of work by Pete Souzacovering Obama and the Whitehouse for the past 8 years.

I encourage you too to start your own personal photographic diary or personal documentary project. Here are some excerpts from some of my own personal documentary projects.

Photos from my trip to Japan with Sam Abell and George Nobechi

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Excerpts from Chick’s GBS Adventure

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Excerpts from Life at the Gardens

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