The Importance Of Social Documentary Photography

A social problem is one that has a significant impact on the lives of many people. It can often be a conflicting opinion based on what is deemed a moral right. While we live our normal lives, social problems are constantly in the news. Photographic documentation is key to addressing these social issues. I am focusing on homelessness today. I will explore how social documentary photography can impact viewers and raise awareness about this terrible issue. Before that, I will briefly examine the history of social documentary photography and its evolution over time. It’s a type of documentary photography that aims to bring attention to current social issues, sometimes within a particular time frame. It can also be a type of socially critical photography that focuses on the lives of those who are less fortunate or disadvantaged. (2) Social documentary photography is a way to raise awareness. How has social documentary photography affected society?

Social documentary photography began in the 20th Century. However, the practice of photographing people in their everyday lives started in the 19th Century. FSA employed writers and photographers to document and report on the lives of the poor and disadvantaged farmers. These photographers documented the harrowing situation of the farmers, whose survival was threatened by the American Depression stage. FSA “seeks to restore faith and hope in American society” (10) Americans suffered from disasters such the dustbowls, which were beyond their control during America’s Great Depression. (10) This led to a new way of photographing social problems. Since then, social documentary photography has been used throughout history to document poverty and the sufferings of certain races. These social problems are now being addressed and we now focus on the present. The UK is not the only country where poverty is a major problem. Poverty may include both homelessness and not being in a position to buy water or food. Low income, high cost of daily essentials, discrimination, poor relationships, and low education can all lead to poverty. Social documentary photographers create awareness by documenting daily life of the less fortunate or creating horrifying images that shock viewers. Lee Jefferies, a photographer, is doing just that. To begin with, Jefferies spent time in the streets sleeping rough and listening to their stories. After that, he explained why he wanted to use photography to raise awareness. Although the images are shocking and disturbing, they have served their purpose. All images are sold and some proceeds go to the homeless who consented to their photos being taken, as well as the other homeless charities (7.8,9).

Social documentary photography captures the lives of those in need of awareness.

This type of documentation started in the 19thcentury. FSA (Farm Security Administration), which hired photographers to record the difficult and dangerous work that poor farmers did, was in the 20th Century. During the Great Depression. The new style of documentary photography was born by the need to document social problems. Arthur Rothstein, Social Documentary Photographer. This is a 1936 photo of Arthur Rothstein and his two sons. “All days were almost the same back then. As a three year old, all you have to do is go outside and let the dust and sand blow, and nothing will be different. One evening, a dark duster arrived from the North. We had kerosene lamps. The darkness got so bad that the kerosene lamp couldn’t be seen. –Darrel Coble. (The boy on the right, recalling the Dust Bowl days when he was an adult) “” – (6)

FSA photos created sympathy for farmers through widespread distribution in magazines and newspapers at the time. These photographs, which were intended to be a demonstration of how vital government assistance programs are in the survival efforts of those hardest hit by the depression and the dustbowl disasters, also prove that they work. (6) The Great Depression combined with the dustbowl drought caused the nation to be devastated financially, emotionally, and physically in the 1930s. The Great Depression was triggered by a severe economic downturn that began in 1929. It lasted for over a decade. Investors who borrowed money for stock purchases and frenzied speculation drove the stock market to unreasonably high peaks. Investor panic set in when stocks started to lose value. The country was plunged into years of unemployment and bank closings due to the massive sell-off. The Great Depression coincided with the start of the dustbowl. Extreme weather patterns brought droughts to the southern Plains. This affected Texas and Oklahoma along with western Kansas as well. It also affected eastern Colorado, New Mexico and Colorado. The drying out of soils and the over-farming of other parts of the land had already caused damage to these areas. Due to the drought and strong winds, soil was even more exhausted which caused dust storms ((6)).

My perceptions/views… This image depicts the horrific everyday life of an American farmer during the Great Depression. Also, it shows the impact of the dustbowls. The American dream was not possible during this time. Their house is a shed-like structure that seams broken and worn. It tells me about the extreme poverty of this time. This has made me feel grateful for my home and the conditions in which it is located. The image shows how the society was affected at that time. There should have been a lot of change and a desire to see it again. This image shows how lonely people were back then. This is why there were many children during that time.

Additional images were taken during this period by Dorothea Lange, including “Migrant Mother”, a Dorothea Lange photograph. This was in the middle of The Great Depression. The mother’s sad, unfavorable appearance makes it clear that she is concerned about her family. Are she worried about her children? Is she worried about how she will feed her family? Is it possible that her children will be okay for one more day?

The year saw social documentary photography continue to document events, problems, and issues. These included protesting, poverty, and wars. John Florea, a war photographer, captured in photo form the truth and beauty of concentration camps. John Florea (1896 – 2000) (1) had dramatic photography that covered everything, from comedy images like “Columnist Sidney,” Hollywood, 1943, to pictures of concentration camps. These horrific images are a source of social awareness and should be shared with newspapers and media. John Florea, The Bodies 3000 Nazi’s Slave Laborers in Preparation for Burial, Nrdhausen Germany, 1945.

I see this image as a stark reminder of the terrible treatment of Nazi’s to slaves during World War II. This included both the Jewish community and those who were captured. They are then gassed and shot once they have become unusable as slaves. Because they didn’t have enough food or hygiene care, many died of starvation or other diseases. Their arranged rows make them look like criminals, whether it’s their religion or because they’re foreigners. They should also be punished for their beliefs and actions against Hitler. The Jews are also treated as criminals because of their belief systems. In Hitler’s eyes, the Nazis treat them like they did more good than they did by getting rid wealthy people. Everybody who challenges Hitler’s beliefs is considered a threat. Additionally, this place looks like a garbage dump for the Nazis’. Here, they pile up (the Jews) ready and set them aside to be mass buried/burnt in the same way we dispose of rubbish that is not recyclable. Furthermore, soldiers leave as though this is the end their workday. This is their daily normal life.

The image is viewed from one point. There are endless rows of bodies at the bottom of the image, leading to a dark silhouette. This gives the image an unsettling look that suggests the bodies have been taken into their final days and are ready to be burned to the ground. I find it disturbing that the image depicts death and the thought of one person deciding to end the livess of many innocent people. This makes me feel insignificant as a viewer. I cannot bring back the Jews of the past. This image would have shocked me in 1945.

“Sometimes they got that picture nobody wanted,” LIFE’s editors wrote Nov. 5, 1945. – (2)

“Some people, such as Robert Capa, knew about war before that. Not John Florea,” Feyeux says. “The photos show it. He was shocked.” – (2)

“Have ever you been hit in your stomach and had to stop breathing and fell to your knees?” Florea shared his experience as a war correspondent with John Loengard in 1993. “I felt so badly hit by someone–I actually cried.”

These statements indicate that the images taken by these (socially-documentary photographers) had a significant impact on the war effort. They were both shocking and disturbing. Almost everyone who views them can’t do anything but to cry or be upset about the war. At best, they can protest. This is the horrible reality of social documentary photos. While you may not be able to change the world, it is possible to look and make an impact. These victims were actually the victims if the US terror attack at Nordhausen on the 4 April 1945. Despite the end of World War II, German cities were still being bombed.

Consequence saw Nordhausen’s city bombed. The destruction of the entire city was almost complete. Two days prior to the evacuation of Bergen-Belsen camp, the city of Nordhausen was bombed. The tragic, un-needed deaths resulted from the destruction of Boelke barsracks where the inmates were staying. The US soldiers are burying almost 3,000 bodies of slave laborers. – (2)

John Florea – A prisoner in Nordhausen concentration camp’s barracks, Germany, 1945. John Florea also captured this image. It shows the terrible conditions that war prisoners had to endure. The shadow that drapes across his eyes, revealing the darkened and deepened look of the man as he stares into camera. Additionally, the shadow reveals the lines of his bones. It is most likely that he has been starved. His posture suggests he’s weak. He lifts his arm to get up and sits down. The light pours in, but it seems like there’s no exit.

Many photographers have tried social documentary photography over the years. They mostly document poverty and protests. Lee Jefferies is a social documentary photographer who photographs intimate photos of the homeless in order to bring attention to those people often ignored.

Lee Jefferies works as an accountant and amateur sports photographer. He photographs intimate portraits of homeless people with terrible detail. Jefferies began the process in London. He took photographs of people as they went. He noticed a young woman in need of shelter in the middle of the crowd. She was unnoticed and was not even noticed by the large number tourists. Jefferies took pictures, but he was too far away. Jefferies (1) observed that he was making a lot of fuss. Jefferies met the girl to learn more about her life and began to create intimate photographs of homeless people to raise funds and awareness. He continues to help his “subjects” after their photos turn a profit. Jefferies is not always able to take photos of homeless people. He has been threatened with a gun and demanded money from them. This project is entirely self-funded. Jefferies selects his subject matter by selecting weather. If Jefferies cannot see the emotion in someone’s eyes, then the image “won’t work”. – (1). Jefferies photographs everything first naturally using natural lighting. Then he captures in black-and-white. To create emotion and impact in his photographs, Jefferies edits them to get a grainy look. It makes his photos look “artistic”, he claims – (1)

This image is so beautiful that it makes me feel like I can’t help but to cry for her. Her eyes are my first reaction. They water and tell her story. We don’t have the information to tell her story, but we can suggest some possible scenarios. She could have been abandoned by her parents, living with them on the streets or running away from her home. She is weak and tired because of the way she looks up. She may have slept too little due to the street conditions. Also, her face appears a bit distorted as if her emotions are being suppressed and she’s trying to keep her feelings in check. Her clothes are also dirty, suggesting that she has nothing. It seems like her clothes are a uniform for school. Does she go to school and receive the education she needs? As a viewer, I notice that her hair falls in clumps and she isn’t able to wash it. The grease makes your hair matt and clump together. The imager Lee Jefferies captured shows a sad and desperate little girl. It will make an impact on people’s minds to remember the homeless living in the streets. Jefferies’s grainy editing allows him to make the most of the imagery and bring out the details of the homeless to help viewers understand the horrific reality of the story.

This is another Lee Jefferies photo. I am here to show that the homeless can be any age and gender. Lee Jefferies has encountered many people over his years of working with the homeless, each with their own stories. His face is covered in wrinkles and he looks very tired. He has a sloppy face. But this isn’t sadness. It is anger and aggression. This could suggest that the man has taken to alcohol and drugs to relieve his sadness and pain. On closer inspection, I see someone who might have taken some risks. This could also indicate that he was successful in life prior to becoming homeless. Jefferies aims to make impact with his photo by making one eye open. His hair is matted and grown out, which indicates that he may have been homeless for some time. Jefferies photos are viewed together because of the wide variety of people he meets. This allows them to have a bigger impact on those who see them. Jefferies is a successful photographer who has made it easy to make people aware of the importance of intimate and close photography.

Social documentary photography has allowed us to document the history of the world and provide proof. From the American Depression through to the Dust bowls and onto the World Wars. Today, there is a lot of social documentary photography that documents poverty. My social documentary photography proved to have an impact on history. It allowed viewers to feel sadness and to grieve, even though not much was done for the farmers. Also, there was no way to turn back the clock to save those who were killed in war bombings. The technology changes have allowed us to be more connected and to share our ideas, which allows us to have an even greater impact on the suffering. My project was to create scary people types that would shock viewers and make them distrust others. I wanted it to end the stereotypical image of a killer. I was also inspired by my research into real-life murders and the fact that they are often not suspected. After having read the artist’s statement, I wanted to know what people thought about my project. The overwhelming image makes them feel afraid, so they became more aware. It is important to be aware of what you are seeing. Social documentary photography has made us all more aware, and it is creating impact.


  • adamlewis

    Adam Lewis is a 34-year-old school teacher and blogger who focuses on education. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education from the University of Central Florida and a Master of Arts degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of South Florida. Lewis has been teaching since 2004 and has taught in both public and private schools. He is currently a teacher at a private Christian school in Florida.