Home Thoughts on Photography Non-Fictional Visual Storytelling

Non-Fictional Visual Storytelling

“Many people in this world do jobs that are dangerous and where their life is at risk and they feel that there is some kind of value to their job I guess that’s how I feel about what I do. There is a social function to documentary photography that is very important and it requires people to take risks.”

James Nachtwey

What is photojournalism?

Industrialization with its inventions of the electric motor, the expansion of railway networks around the world, or the telephone gave way to an acceleration of communication towards the end of the nineteenth century. In the area of photography, the invention of dry plates, new and better lenses, photographic film in rolls, image transmission by telegraph meant important steps that made it possible to print images in newspapers.

With the emergence of photographs illustrating the daily news, the vision the readers had of the world changed as well. Thanks to photojournalism they suddenly could visualize the events and see the faces of the protagonists – of politicians, artists, etc. At the same time press photography became a powerful instrument of propaganda and mass manipulation.

At first photojournalists tried to use the new technique to capture the horror of different wars. They were faced with a complicated task due to technical limitations (long exposure times, preparing the plates, huge weight of the equipment etc.) and difficult weather conditions. Among the pioneers are British war photographer Roger Fenton (Crimean War, 1855) and Matthew B. Brady (American Civil War, 1861).

Then photographers like Jacob A. Riis and Lewis W. Hine used photography to document the misery of large sections of society. For a long time, the reputation of press photographers was not very good. The newspapers usually didn’t even publish the names of the authors of the photographs. Up to the present day, photojournalist don’t enjoy a an overall positive reputation. The phenomenon of “paparazzi”, a tabloid reporter with little scruple originating in Italy, has a lot to do with the bad reputation of the profession of photojournalists in general.

Birth of photojournalism in Germany

“At first it was more important to portray people and events favorably.”

As photographic technology was developing at a fast pace during the nineteenth century and the handling of the camera and photosensitive materials became increasingly easier, the interest of newspapers in good visual storytelling grew as well. However, the media was not yet all that interested in documenting the often harsh reality. At first it was more important to portray people and events favorably.

For the first photojournalist it was not an easy job. As mentioned before, their reputation was bad, and they were regarded as puppets of the real journalists. Furthermore, there were still no flash lights, only magnesium flash powder. The smoke, however, smelled bad and made ​​the faces of those depicted in the photos look pretty pale and unflattering.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the incorporation of images in newspapers began to thrive. Founded in 1904, the English newspaper Daily Mirror was the first newspaper in the world that he gave great importance to photojournalist images on their pages. The New York Times first started in 1922 to publish photographs regularly. Up to that moment drawings and graphics were the most common of illustration. Also, a photography was considered more an illustration than news in itself.

That changed in the 1920s when the first articles emerged with strong images, photo stories and essays. The origins of photojournalism are in Germany. More precisely during the years of the Weimar Republic between the two world wars. In difficult economic times, it was a very brief time when liberal arts flourished and press freedom existed. All that came to an end with the arrival of Adolf Hitler and his seizure of power in 1933. The key breakthrough in photojournalism came with the invention of the cameras “Ermanox” and “Leica” in the 1920s. Suddenly photojournalists were possible to work with very small and lighter, better lenses and rolls of photographic film instead of plates.

The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.

Robert Capa

The lawyer Erich Salomon (1886-1944) was one of the first photojournalists who used this new technique. He found that smaller devices allowed him take pictures candidly, that’s  without people seeing him. That way he obtained unique images of politicians, artists and celebrities from other areas of society that differed greatly from what people had been used in photojournalism. Erich Salomon was the first star of the new profession of visual storytellers in the news media.

Mass media magazines in the U.S.

In 1936 LIFE Magazine was born in the United States and became a role model for many magazines in the world that promoted photojournalism as we know it today.

Many journalists and photographers who had shaped the development of photojournalism in the Weimar Republic fled after Hitler had come to power and contributed to the rise of mass media in the U.S.

Other key factors for the success of LIFE Magazine and its concept to tell their stories through photographs was the industrialization of the U.S., the advancement of technology and the large amount of advertisement which generated great extra revenues for the publishers.

The organization of the LIFE Magazine was so perfect that it allowed the editor to react quickly to events as they occurred. Several photojournalist were always by hand ready to go. The magazine had seventeen departments (sports, science, theater etc.) and each of them was again divided into sub-departments.

The information was verified by experts in the documentation. A good example is the perfect organization of  the coverage of the funeral of Winston Churchill. When he became ill and was likely to die soon, LIFE photojournalists traveled to London to investigate and book the best places to take pictures.

Then the magazine made another incredible effort of logistics: A plane was turned into a newsroom and when it landed in the U.S. the issue covering the death of Churchill was ready.

However, the rise of television and the economic crisis of the 1970s with great inflation, ended the successful chapter of LIFE Magazine and the high-quality photojournalism it stood for. The last issue came out on December 28, 1972.

One of the most renowned documentary and war photographer who has greatly contributed to what is photojournalism today is James Nachtwey. Watch the movie “War Photographer” which shows him at work.

For more of the best photography movies check out the list on this page. You might also be interested in the interviews with photojournalists like Donald Weber, Anton Kusters or Tino Soriano.

Inspiring photographers from around the globe share their secrets and insights. Join the newsletter and you’ll get actionable advice to help you develop an unique photographic language and eventually take your craft as an image maker to the next level.
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else. More information



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here