Documentary Photography

Send them into the streets!

Taking pictures on the street using mobile phones is a common practice for most young people today. Why not take something your students already do naturally and willingly and bring a bit more focus and intention to it? You can introduce this alongside other projects in year 1 and students can develop their own thematic interests over time.

Using a "Brief"

Give specific but open ended guidelines, also referred to as a brief. The brief helps students to have a focus and not just take random pictures.

A brief can be simply to seek out and photograph a specified subject matter, like those listed below, as you go about your daily life. Or, for the more sophisticated students, give a brief with more interpretative content, such as a visual pun, or a contradiction, or even a cliche'. Looking for these in your environment is slightly more challenging because the student must think through the concept first, but they also allow for more creative freedom in choosing and interpreting subject matter.

Documenting the world around you

Some possible subjects for a photo brief: 

food shopping - what do people put in their shopping bag? This requires some nosiness.

Things out of context, absurd, like this sofa I saw on the street

shop window displays, again, seeking the bizarre, the cliche, the ironic....

open doors...? Mystery, things only glimpsed

irony, visual puns ( see resource on Richard Wentworth below)

juxtapositions, wierd coupling of things

Weekly photo assignment

Make this into an ongoing project with a new brief every week. Students can brainstorm the brief themselves and come up with suggestions for the whole class. The weekly photo brief can run parallel to other art projects as it doesn't require much time investment and is done outside class time.


Time of day: take a picture of the same exact place at different times of day over a period of time.

Decay and transformation: create a still life of perishable substances; fruit, flowers etc. Photograph it every day over a month, documenting the process of deterioration. ( see work by artist Sam Taylor Wood at the Tate)

One Object Many Solutions is a teaching idea that uses photography to explore an object in a variety of situations, from a variety of angles, lighting, viewpoints, locations.

Look to Artists for Inspiration

photographing peoples grocery shopping makes a fascinating visual and cultural study

Californian photographer Peter Menzel visited 24 countries for the book Hungry Planet. From the Aboubakar family, from Darfur, Sudan, who spend 79p feeding four generations, to a German family who spend around £320, his work shows how much the world's weekly groceries cost.

 This could be the inspiration for a similar type of documentary photo project. Simplify it: photograph everything YOU eat for a week, or narrow it down even more: take a picture of every cup of coffee you drink for week. You'd be amazed at the possible results of such persistence!

adapt this brief to explore people in particular situations

people waiting

people sleeping

people showing  kindness

people looking in the mirror, putting on make-up, grooming, etc

Walker Evans

American 1920s-70s, documentary photographer of the vernacular

Walker Evans at the Met Museum

Walker Evans is one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. His elegant, crystal-clear photographs and articulate publications have inspired several generations of artists, from Helen Levitt and Robert Frank to Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. The progenitor of the documentary tradition in American photography, Evans had the extraordinary ability to see the present as if it were already the past, and to translate that knowledge and historically inflected vision into an enduring art. His principal subject was the vernacular—the indigenous expressions of a people found in roadside stands, cheap cafés, advertisements, simple bedrooms, and small-town main streets. For fifty years, from the late 1920s to the early 1970s, Evans recorded the American scene with the nuance of a poet and the precision of a surgeon, creating an encyclopedic visual catalogue of modern America in the making.

Nan Goldin

american photographer, born in 1953, I would say her photos are subterranean rather than street photography, mostly portraying the underground world of sex, clubs, aids.. 

Goldin began taking photographs as a teenager in Boston, MA. Her earliest works, black-and-white images of drag queens, were celebrations of the subcultural lifestyle of the community to which she belonged. During a period of study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she began displaying her work in the format of a slide-show, a constantly evolving project that acquired the title (appropriated from The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht) The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in 1981. This collection of images had a loose thematic structure and was usually shown with an accompanying sound-track, first in the clubs where many of the images were taken and then within gallery spaces. In the 1990s Goldin continued to produce portraits of drag queens, but also made images of friends who were dying of AIDS and recorded her experiences travelling in Asia...[1]

Nan Goldin slideshow at Moma

Richard Wentworth

 UK, contemporary, photographs banal objects encontered on the street, slightly manipulating the scene sometime, placing objects to create humour or irony. Go to One Object Many Solutions for a teaching Idea that uses objects and photography.

Richard Wentworth talks about his practice with a-n magazine

 Richard Wentworth on Tate shots

More resources on Street Photography

The Photographer's Gallery and several artists designed a project that spread out to include contributors from all over the world. Your students can join this group or start their own...

Street Photography Now is a collaboration between The Photographers’ Gallery, London and Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, (Thames & Hudson). The project has run for 52 weeks, ending with the last Instruction issued on the 23rd September 2011. During this time the project has received over 16,000 images uploaded from countries including China, Japan and South Korea, Brazil and Argentina, USA, Russia, Australia, UAE, Morocco and all across Europe, including of course the many submissions from the UK.

Each week a leading contemporary street photographer issued a new Instruction, written to inspire fresh ways of looking at and documenting the world we live in. Over the following six days, photographers around the world were invited to upload one photograph in response to a special Flickr Group

Read the BBC coverage of this project and watch a slideshow of the photographs

  video interview with Anders Peterson

Anders Petersen has been working in London's Soho for several weeks, as part of his Soho Projects residency commissioned by The Photographers' Gallery. Immersing himself in its bars, cafes, homes and hotels - creating a very personal portrait of one of city’s most vibrant areas.

In this video Petersen talks about his time in London, his working processes, and previous projects including the seminal Cafe Lehmitz.

and check out these links

Tutorials on street photography at creative live

On Street photography facing a moment of truth in the Guardian

Street Photography 

Framing Your Vision - William Eggleston


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