Documentary VS. Art

The definition of ‘art’ is the production or expression according to the aesthetic principals of what is beautiful, appealing or an object of more than ordinary significance. (Collins, 2009) The definition on ‘documentary’ is a work presenting political, social and historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner. (American, 2009) From the definitions in the dictionary these two terms are hardly in harmony with each other. The opinion of the average man on the street about what art implies and what a documentary means could hardly be argued to be the same one. The two are different, very different, in its physical form and the skills possessed by the creator of the works. However can we draw distinctions between what is and cannot be art? One of the beauties of art is the fact that it cannot really be defined in a rigid, unanimously agreed manner. Art, nowadays can be what would previously have been seen as vandalism. Banksy, a famous British street-artist can increase the value of a building by millions of pounds by producing one of his art works on it. Further, the London Tate modern which is, in its definition, an art museum has over 50 artworks with the medium of photographs either included in the art or displayed in itself as a piece of art. However, can the term ‘documentary’ be included in this wide definition? Is it part of what may be perceived as the production according to aesthetic principles of what is beautiful or is documentary an independent structure that can perhaps touch the spectrum of art but never really be included in it?

It has been said that this debate still rages on at the Magnum photo agency as the agency seems to be divided between photographers drawn towards the artistic aspects of photography and the photographers that are more journalistically orientated. The problem stems from the modern idea of art. The concept of art is an isolated practice with a specific market values and cultural reflections that is often seen as decorative rather than factual. In order to document an occurrence, it requires a person to physically be present where art is a reflection of the artist’s mind. This is why many would argue that the two are very different, and that art and documentary hence can never correlate. An artist requires a different skill set to a documentary maker. Art depends heavily on the creative abilities of the creator to use narratives and symbolisms to depict a deeper meaning. Art can also contain realistic elements but then in most cases rely in the on the creators skills to retain its realism. Salvador Dalí, a very famous surrealist artist includes mediums of the real world to create abstract depictions of his mind. His piece ‘Mountain Lake’ has the initial appearance of being moderately realistic yet when one moves closer to the canvas, a modern telephone and some abstract intricate details make it clear that Dali is truly an artist. The artist’s experience-level with the equipment or software they are using, has existed since humans have been able to produce reflections of their minds, a statement which does not really apply to documentary. Documentary makers have to rely more on experience in the field, logistical hurdles and pre-production. To document an accrues or an event, the creator must usually rely on a specific time window to capture its subject. It is a modern-age development. Documentary as we now know it, in a paper or online has only existed since the 17th century, The Daily Courant being England’s first newspaper, founded in 1702. Before, word of mouth and letters had been the way that people spread information regarding events. Is mere gossiping therefore ‘documentary’? Hardly.

A primary example of a photographer who would be in concurrence with the argument that documentary and art have very clear boundaries is Susan Meiselas. This Magnum photographer is leaning towards the journalistic side and her works would not necessarily be seen as an artistic reflection of an abstract mean. Meiselas has been able to show a great deal of interest for the social, political and ethical divisions in her subjects through four decades, considering her own actions as an image maker, cultural archivist and historian. (Roth, 2009)

Susan Meiselas is a prime example of a documentary photographer that takes photos to tell the audience what happened in a certain place at a certain time. She has been known to get involved with her subjects to great extent and draws attention to people’s experiences around the world that has a story to be told. She has given back to those people she has photographed, creating ongoing relationships that define her as one of the most socially committed photographers of our time. (Bianco, 2010) The historic archival approach that Susan Meiselas has towards her work is worlds apart from a framed print that is admired in a gallery as a work of art. Even though her work is aesthetically beautiful, it could hardly hang next to a Monet and be scrutinized by fine art professors. When photojournalists deny the idea of photojournalism as art, what they are really objecting to is their work being viewed as an art object which threatens to drain it of its useful value as hard hitting truth. It is the role of Meiselas, as a reporter, to create change. She did not intend for her work to be marketed as an abstract object that is viewed in admiration at a museum or on the wall of a wealthy collector.  From this problem stems other moral issues, such as can photojournalism be considered beautiful, or is there something wrong with photojournalism when it presents ugly truths with such beauty. This seems a bit of a rumour to me because after all, the history of art is full of ugly truths presented beautifully. Carl Wahlbom’s ‘The Battle of Lüzern’ (1632) is one of the most famous Swedish paintings in the world, known both for the fact that it depicts an incredibly important, horrific war, but also that it is a wonderfully beautiful fine art piece. The painting is valued in a wholly different way from Meiselas’ “Molotov man”. Wahlbom’s work is admired and awed. Meiselas’ work has the one function; to tell the story. Looking at these two, it is clear that the boundary between art and documentary is very distinct.

If you look at Susan Meiselas’s photos from Nicaragua, her images shows beautiful composition mixed with shocking scenes of human suffering and brutal mutilated bodies. Still, it is certainly understandable why many photojournalists hesitate to call what they do art. The purpose of an artist would appear to be so different to a documentarian and the manner by which the image is created would also appear to be dissimilar, as mentioned. Unlike the studio photographer or art photographer, the journalist presumably does not manipulate the image excessively or attempts to show something that was not there.  The journalist is said to record truth. Photojournalists take pride in the fact that they are telling the public about events they think need international attention by acting as a correspondent to tell its audience what is happening. Looking at the distinction in two ways; financial effect and risk-taking, it can be concluded why documentary and art are very different. A fine-art piece only increases in value the older it gets. The world’s most expensive painting; The Mona Lisa was created in the early 1500s. It is the portrait of a merchant’s wife and was not seen for its priceless artistic qualities then as it is now. The value of a portrait photograph taken (though perhaps for documentarian reasons) of a merchant’s wife in the 1840s would not even begin to come close to the value of a fine-art piece. Arguably, photographs are not of the same value because they can be duplicated easily and are still a modern medium, yet the reason behind the value-gap  could also be the fact that far more skill and long-term effort is involved with a piece of art like this than a mere photograph.

Modern day Artists like the painters of the epic battlefields during the Civil War can also be found using artistic photography as a medium to portray their opinion in order to create public attention. An ideal example of such artistic photographers that creates awareness with their work is the South African duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Adam and Oliver make an award winning team that produce photographical art pieces that deals with current political issues. Their work has been exhibited around the world in some of the most prestigious galleries. They make their art from news worthy occurrences that would usually only attract journalists and documentary makers. Nevertheless their photographic creations grip the viewer from an artistic point of view. They create art that can be admired and still are able to convey a political and social message.


Broomberg and Chanarin’s approach towards photography is more like a conceptual social anthropology. Much of their work had been dealing with gathering of visual data related to matters of human behaviour. (Campany, 2006) In 2008 the photographic art duo produced a profound piece of art by going to Helmand Province in Afghanistan as conflict photographers. Their intentions was to produce an art piece in protest of the way imbedded photographers are used by governments as elements to achieve their propaganda messages. Instead of using cameras, they unrolled a role of large light sensitive photographic paper, exposing it to the sun for 20 seconds. This resulted in abstract patterns of black, white and variegated hues as produced by the heat and light of the desert. During the time Broomberg and Chanarin spend in Afghanistan, the role of photographic paper was transported by the British Army in a heavy light proof box. Damage sustained to the lightproof box and its content from heavy handed logistical movement between military bases, meant that the final work was co-produced by the Army personnel. This symbolizes the dysfunction of being an embedded journalist in this day and age. The approach to working as a photographer in an area of suffering, denied the viewer the liberating effect that would usually be recognised from conventional conflict photography. The artistic liberties taken by these two photographers blurred any clear lines that conventional documentary photographers may have drawn. The fact that they were presented with an honourable opportunity to visit a war-field but rather decided to take works allowing the viewer to create their own picture of what it was like, was a bold step taken, reflecting the bold risks taken  by Picasso and Dali (to mention a few) in the beginning of the abstract movement. It showed that journalistic photography, like any other art form, is in constant development and can actually be celebrated, provided the work has been produced with care and skill. They named the collection “The day nobody died” and it offers a critique of conflict photography in the age of embedded journalism. (Artist, 2008)


In the making of “The day nobody died” along with other various artistic collections they have produced, Broomberg and Chanarin took on a different approach to photographic art than usual. They did so by using the present elements to create the piece, using realism and still conveying their intended message. Although their works is not a photograph per se, or as we know photographs to be, it is still a work that has a documentary quality. Art has no boundaries but it will always be viewed subjectively, depending on the viewer and the intentions of the artist who created it. Going back the Tate museum of modern art, it is the host to world-renowned documentary photographers such as Guy Tillim with a whole exhibition room in his honour. It has been admired by thousands and could hardly be argued to be a rigorous picture with no artistic quality. However photography cannot be secluded as a form of art. When all the elements of an aesthetically beautiful photo come together with good composition and subject matter, the boundaries between art and documentary in the medium of photography merge together, erasing the boundaries of what can or cannot be art all together.

By Armand Hough

MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography 2012

University of the Arts London

Project Unit 1.2

Reference Index

-Collins English Dictionary, 2009 William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 10th Edition

-American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 2009 Houghton Mifflin Company 4th Edition

-Roth, P., 2009 January 12, 2009 edition of The Nation.

-Bianco, Juliette, 2010 March, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College (

-The Press, Friday, Feb. 17, 1961 The Press: Artist-Journalists of THE CIVIL WAR, The Times

-Campany, David. November 2006, Aperture Magazine, issue 185.


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About I AM Photography

Born in sunny South Africa I am an adventure seeker with a taste for beauty and good pictures. I have been in the industry for a couple of years now and learned my tricks from the best.

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