Can Documentary Photography be Fine Art?

Rice Harvest, Nakhon Nayok, Thailand

In the world we live in today the lines are often blurred between genres of photography, and oftentimes overlap. A prime example are a couple images of mine that appeared in National Geographic France for a story they were doing on Thai Buddhism.

The image National Geographic Magazine chose for the cover, of Buddha statues, I did not consider documentary photography as the main category, however the image of Buddhist monks I did consider documentary. Both of these images appeared in National Geographic France and both are on my Fine Art website, Pixels by Fine Art America.
The reason I’m writing about this subject is that I know many young photographers struggle with identity. Although the modern world is shifting away from classifications for photographers, it is still important to identify what you do so you can be found. With the explosion of photography in the last 10 years, it is easy to get lost in the crowd. When I first studied photography 40 years ago, the word photographer was enough. Genres were considered sub categories of photography. Today it is not enough to just be a photographer. People want to know what it is you specialize in. Are you a documentary, news, travel, or fine art photographer? I would simply answer that question “yes”, but that confuses people today, and makes it difficult for search engines to find me, so I don’t end up in the top of a google search for photographers unless you know my name.

Buddhist Ordination in Rural Thailand

The way I separate Fine Art from Documentary in my mind is not solely by subject matter. The above image can be considered Fine Art, or Documentary in my mind. I made the image as part of a documentary project, but the quality of light and the expressions, made me upload it to my Fine Art website, and yet because of what is going on in the image, a Buddhist ordination, I also consider it documentary.

One Thousand Days in Iraq

The image above of the Joint Visitors Bureau in Iraq, is exactly the opposite. I made the photo as a Fine Art statement, however because of what it is, when, and where, it is also a Documentary photo.

My daughter Gammy waiting to catch the train to Bangkok for the weekend, July 08, 2020.
My daughter Gammy waiting to catch the train to Bangkok for the weekend.

Sometimes in my mind the classification is easier to make. I ask myself “has the image been altered? Have elements been removed, are the colors reasonably accurate?” In the above image documenting a trip to Bangkok, a water hose was removed from the train platform, which instantly ruled out news or documentary, and made it a Fine Art image.
So for me a documentary photograph can be a fine art image if it fits the criteria, but sometimes a fine art image is simply fine art.

Nakhon Nayok, Thailand

My rule of thumb, my unwavering commitment to photography, is to make the best image I can no matter what I’m photographing. The decision as to what genre it is comes later during or after processing. Ideally in a perfect world all of my work would be considered fine art, but I don’t live in a perfect world, so sometimes an image that is documentary, does not make the cut. It is still documentary, but not fine art. Those images live on hard drives until if, and when they are ever needed.


My work can be licensed at Pixels.com.


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