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Everyone Is a Documentary Photographer Today

Adam Liu

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‘It’s more important for a photographer to have very good shoes, than to have a very good camera.’ – Sebastiao Salgado

This quote still rings true today, although perhaps in a different way to when Salgado first said it. When Salgado began his photographic adventures, film was the only medium available to those interested in the craft. The essence of a camera is nothing more than a light-tight box with a lens and a shutter, and for Salgado’s contemporaries, their work was unconstrained by the myriad of technical choices and camera marketing that plague modern photography. The paradigm of this essential nature of the camera can be seen most clearly in the Kodak Brownie, released in 1900 – nothing more than a box with a fixed lens and heavily limited exposure options afforded by a couple of shutter speeds, these cameras were George Eastman’s gift to the democratisation of photography. And it worked. These little boxes, primitive to the modern photographer, captured thousands upon thousands of snapshots that, to this day, provide us with a visual documentary of the early 20th century. Photographs taken on a whim, captures of the families and landscapes familiar and unfamiliar to those behind the camera, document history.

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Now, replace the Brownie with your phone, and nothing has really changed. Yes, your phone has a zoom and auto-exposure that gives you well-exposed images without a second thought, but the nature is the exact same as that of the Brownie. Phone cameras have some rudimentary exposure control, more so than the Brownie, but we still perform the same essential actions that those a century ago did with their light-tight boxes – we point the camera towards something or someone, and we press the shutter, capturing a snapshot of the moment much as our predecessors did. Before the phone, people did the exact same with their point-and-shoot cameras, and before the point-and-shoot, families took snapshots with their family SLRs. Ever since the democratisation of photography, people have been taking snapshots to document their lives. In this sense, everyone is a documentary photographer. All of us take photographs to document our lives and the lives of those around us, and the types of photographs we take are in the spirit of those taken before us – selfies imitate the self-portraits of Vivian Maier, group snapshots of your friends together invoke the group portraits of Steve McCurry, and pictures of random serendipity mimic the decades-old spirit of street photography championed by names such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Josef Koudelka. Anyone can take up the mantle of the photographer these days, and this can only be beneficial for the artform – the only way to take good photographs is to get out there and take photos, as Salgado’s opening quote says.

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All images courtesy of Adam Liu

My own work is self-labelled as documentary photography, out of a lack of a better title. By carrying a camera daily, I aim to embody the spirit of the Brownie in making the means to photography ready to me at every moment, without obstruction – by doing so, I can take a photograph of anything that captures my eye and interests me enough to preserve. Any of us can do this these days, with a camera readily available in our pockets around the clock – and many of us do so without even thinking about it. Next time you take your phone out to take a photograph, whether it is of your friends or of something that caught your eye, think about how you are participating in the act of documenting your life through photography. Make prints of your favourites, display them on your walls, share them with your friends and family. Follow the tradition of those who came before you and took their own snapshots documenting their lives. Everyone is a documentary photographer today, and this is a good thing.

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