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How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

We all love a good story. A tale that captures your attention and draws you in to discover more. Creating a documentary photography project can be a great way to develop your photography. It can also help hold the attention of your audience for longer.

Monk in a Saamlor tricycle taxi in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Random collections of unrelated images tend to be glanced over. This is especially so when most of your photography is viewed on social media platforms. Making your photography stick in people’s minds is a constant challenge.

Developing a photography project and working on it over a period of time, be it weeks, months or even years, can help you stand out from the crowd. Your personal skills and style will evolve in a more meaningful direction. The deeper commitment you have to a documentary photography project the more you will benefit.

Have a plan and a purpose for your photography project

Charging into a project on a whim will sometimes work, but not often. Without purpose and a plan, you are more likely to lose interest. You’ll struggle to keep momentum and find it too challenging to come up with fresh ideas to keep your project alive.

Start a list. Write down ideas as they come to you. What would most like to photograph? As you start, don’t restrict yourself. Jot down whatever comes to mind, giving no thought to whether or not it’s practical. Let your list grow over a week and then review it.

Market Tricycle Taxi Ride How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Give yourself some space alone with your list. Edit it down to what’s practical. What can you photograph every day, or every week? If anything on your list is not accessible to you, remove it. Add it to a list for future projects.

Concentrate on what excites you. What’s on your list that you’d most like to commit to photographing regularly? Having a passion for your theme or concept will keep you motivated. Don’t choose ideas you think will be easy. Being challenged is good for you.

Narrow your list down to two or three ideas. Mull these over before deciding on one of them. Even make a start on more than one. You can begin work on more than one project, then, if it’s too much of a commitment, pick the one you’re enjoying the most.

Now write another list of what you will do with the photos you’ll create for your documentary project. Stories are for sharing. Who will be interested in the tale you are telling? What’s the best medium or platform for you to display your images?

You might want to make a physical scrapbook with prints of your favorite photos. Instagram or Pinterest may be an ideal outlet for you, or your own website. Photo sharing sites like 500px or Flickr are also options. You could email a small selection of your project photos to one or two photographer friends each week for their feedback. Consider what you most want to achieve by sharing your photos.

Tricycle Detail How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Know your subject better than anyone

Research. Dig into your chosen project idea like it’s brand new. Even if you already know a lot about it, find out more. Telling a story built on thin information will not hold people’s attention for very long.

The more of an expert you become on your subject, the better the story you will tell. You might even want to plan a narrative. What will be the beginning, middle, and end? The greater your knowledge about it, the more interesting detail you’ll be able to include. You want other experts on your topic to be surprised at what you are showing them in your photos.

Look into the history of the project idea. Talk to people who know about your topic. Don’t only rely on the internet. To touch the heart of the thing will require experience – yours and other people’s.

Tricycle Taxi Rest How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Take lots of photographs

While it’s important to plan, don’t be held back by it. Make a start as soon as you have decided on what your documentary photography project will be. You might start slowly and change direction a few times, but that’s okay.

Procrastinating will not help you achieve your goals. Once you begin, you will see your story develop, and you can steer it in any direction you feel is right.

The topic for your project may dictate how frequently you can take photos. Hopefully, this will be regular, especially if you are embarking on your first documentary photo project.

Vary the images you are making. You may decide to use one prime lens. If so, push yourself to create a diverse selection of compositions with it. Or use your widest and your longest lens with the same subject on the same day for variety.

Waiting for a Ride How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Use a mixture of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings to also help build an interesting series of photos. If there’s movement, let it blur out using a slow shutter speed. If you would normally photography a subject with a wide aperture, close it down and get as much in focus as possible. Stretch your technique beyond what you would typically use.

Photograph in a mixture of lighting situations. Take some photos in the morning and others in the afternoon or at night. Aiming for variety will give you a more interesting body of work to edit down from for the images you will share.

As you build up a body of work, you will begin to see your strengths and weaknesses. You will see the photos you like the most. Organize these into a separate folder, or series of folders so that you can compare them often.

Taxi Rider in Chiang Mai, Thailand How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Cultivate a relationship with your project

Photographing a project will involve some amount of repetition. You’ll visit the same locations. Photograph the same things. Meet the same people. Experience weather and seasonal changes.

Be aware of your feelings each time you are working on your project. Make photographs that are in tune with your mood and how you are experiencing what you are doing. This will make your story more personal and interesting.

Your view of the world is unique, and your photographs should portray this. The concept may seem a little abstract, but as you are mindful of it and practice over time, you will find your photos become more expressive of who you are.

Waiting for Customers How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Interacting with people who are part of your project, if there are any, will help develop the character in your photo story. You might prefer to only take candid photos of people, but the way you do this will also reflect in your pictures. Using a long lens, or a wide one, will result in very different candid images.

Engaging with people throughout your project is very interesting. At the start, people may be uncertain of what you’re doing or why. As you revisit and photograph them, your relationship with them will change. People will become accustomed to you and will be more relaxed in your presence. Others may become irritated or bored. The nature of the photos you make of them will change.

Observe the differences. What’s changed since the last time you worked on your project? Look for subtitles you may not have picked up on if you’d only photographed in that place once. Over time you will start to see things you did not pick up on before. These details can add a depth of interest to your documentary project.

Poise of the Rider How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Review your photos and seek feedback

What do you think of your photos? Are others enjoying your visual storytelling?

Working on a project allows you to see your own photography developing. Because you’re photographing the same theme or concept over a period of time, you will reproduce similar types of photos. Compare them. Can you see growth in your skills and style?

Separate the top 10 or 20 percent of your photos after each session you have working on your project. This will give you a clearer idea of your progress. From time to time, review these photos and look for gaps in your story. What’s missing? What are you photographing too much?

Having a photographer friend or mentor look over your photos and share their critique on them will help you see things from another perspective. They may point out things or ask questions you have not thought of. Healthy feedback can lead to a deeper, richer story being told.

Cycle Taxi Shadow How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Let your documentary photography project grow organically

Go with the flow. Don’t stick to your plan too closely if you feel a more exciting story is emerging from your project. Let it develop organically. This will help you keep interested in what you are doing. You may stretch your project out for longer than you had planned.

Start today. Begin writing your list of ideas. Don’t rush it, but don’t let the idea stagnate. Once you begin, keep thinking about your project and adding to it. Right from when you start your list, through to the taking of photos and sharing them.

Have you ever given yourself the challenge of a documentary photography project? You may find you love the more in-depth storytelling aspect of working on a body of work.

Do you already have a project which has stalled a little and needs a kickstart? Design a story for it and plan to share it. This can help you get back on track.


How to Create a Documentary Photography Project

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his e-books and his website.

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