The term ‘reportage photography’ as a sub-category of ‘documentary’ is ambiguous (Bate, 2009:56). Nevertheless they may be more easily distinguished at their limits. For example Tom Stoddart’s photograph ‘Will I see you again?…’ (see fig. 1.) of a mother evacuating her son from Sarajevo in 1992 captures the emotion of the mother and child in a single photograph (Benedictus, 2008) that also manages to convey a sense of larger events beyond the frame. This emotional charge to the image is typical of reportage photography and often is such that the photograph does not need a caption.
On the opposite pole of the definitional divide is for example the work of Martin Parr (b.1952), — his book ‘Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton’ (Parr, 1986) (see fig. 2.). Other examples among many are Joel Sternfeld (b.1944), Mary Ellen Mark (b.1940), and practitioners such as August Sander (b. 1876) and Eugene Atget (b. 1857). Also, the Guardian newspaper interviewed several reportage photographers recording their comments on outstanding work in the genre (Saner, 2011). However, it is worth bearing in mind in any discussion on reportage photography (photojournalism) that:
Documentary and photojournalism [reportage] are intimately linked, and many practitioners of straight photography are interchangeably described as either photojournalists or documentary photographers. However, photojournalism does, as the name implies, have a special relationship to other texts and is seen, in its classic form, as a way of narrating current events or illustrating written news stories (Wells, 2004:70).
The reason that the sub-categories of the documentary genre are so slippery is that documentary itself can ‘embrace different modes of practice, using techniques from art, news and journalism’ (Bate, 2009:54). Nevertheless, a useful distinction can be made between ‘documentary‘ as ‘neutral/objective’, and reportage as ‘expressive/subjective’. Thus:
The subjective viewpoint appears involved and engaged in an event, while the neutral picture seems to lack commitment, as almost indifferent or disengaged. The ‘concerned’ photographer might therefore find reportage more attractive as the rhetoric of engagement in life. This human expressive aspect remains a key feature of reportage-type photography in snapshots and subsequent digital practices even today, … (Bate, 2009:59)
The key theory of this expressive realism in social documentary is embodied in the term the ‘decisive moment’ made famous by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (Bate, 2009:56).
Bate, David (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. New York: Berg
Benedictus, Leo (2008) Tom Stoddart’s best shot [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/oct/02/photography (Accessed on 14.09.14)
Parr, Martin (1986) Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing
Saner, Emine (2011) The artists’ artist: reportage photographers. In: The Guardian [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2011/jun/15/artists-artist-reportage-photography (Accessed 14.09.14)
Wells, Liz (2004) Photography: A Critical Introduction Third Edition. London: Routledge
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Stoddart, Tom (1992) ‘Will I see you again? . . .’ In: The Guardian [online] At: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Arts/Arts_/Pictures/2011/6/15/1308154133980/Tom-Stoddart-s-shot-of-a–007.jpg (Accessed on 14.10.14)
Figure 2. Parr, Martin (1986) ‘Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton’ [online] At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYDYDHEB9 (Accessed on 14.10.14)