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The Moral Capacity Of Humanitarian And Documentary Photography

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What can the photograph do? It can create a freeze frame in time, but can it be more than a memory? Photography wasn’t originally used to ‘alleviate human suffering’5, but that is often the intention of those who photograph in an activist nature. The photograph can speak provide more truth than words or a painting can. It is a universal language that everyone can understand, there is no barrier between worlds. So, when presented with an image of a child suffering from the famine within their country, bones protruding from every part of their body, and their stomach inflated like a balloon, everyone can almost instantly deduce that this is a person in need of help. It causes the audience to react, whether that be to wince, or to feel unimaginable sadness, or to be intrigued by the circumstance. However, without the photograph, the audience would not truly know the intensity of the circumstance.

When photographing atrocity, the genre can be referred to as many names, such as documentary, photojournalism, humanitarian, and activist. It is key to note that these can often overlap, but also some would have a more distinctive style to the other. But all have been referred to when discussing and photographing activist-centric topics.

Since the documentary genre comprises the majority of activist photography, it is important to define documentary…The definition of documentary photography in the twenty-first century is complex, multi-layered, and nuanced. It is both process and aesthetic and applies to a broad range of imagery, from traditional, straight reportage-type images to manipulated faux documentary images that appear on gallery walls.6

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In Michelle Borge’s ‘Photography as Activism’, she notes how the genre is not simply one style of photography, to reiterate, documentary is ‘complex, multi-layered, and nuanced’6. I personally feel as though describing this genre as documentary is valid, as a form of photographing other people and events is a documentation of that moment, but along with this:

It is important to note that all documentary photography is not activism. Many great documentary photographers think their only role is to take the photographs. And activist work is not always documentary photography.6

What I can infer from what Borge is saying, is that context is important, as well as subtle notes to style and photographic elements. But there are definitely instances of the genres overlapping and integrating. Personally, I feel as though the documentary genre alone is very professionally led, with a great consideration for the artistic elements regarding a photograph. When it comes to activist photography, it can often be a genre that anyone can participate within, a civilian photographing on their phone could be a part of activist photography6. Humanitarian and activist photograph definitely overlap, and could certainly be the same genre.

All of these genres can be used to alert the public to what is happening in the world. But there are various ways of doing so. Beginning with humanitarian and activist photography,

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The Moral Capacity Of Humanitarian And Documentary Photography. (2021, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
“The Moral Capacity Of Humanitarian And Documentary Photography.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2021,
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