Good Documentary Photography is Still Alive at the New York Times

Michelle Anderson, Writer and Advocate, author of “Go Home to Your Dying Downtown” , photo by Damon Winter

It’s more and more rare to see good documentary photography in online or print publications, which is ironic given the sheer amount of photographs out there and the fact that basically everyone now has a professional quality camera in their pocket at all times. The profession has been dumbed down by any number of things – whiz-bang digital photography capabilities and a generation raised on them, the disappearance of in-house photographers in preference for the work of unpaid “citizen journalists,” general vulgarity of taste.

So it’s refreshing to see good work when it appears. Damon Winter’s photography in “Go Home to Your Dying Downtown,” written by Michelle Anderson for the Time’s Opinion Pages is an excellent example of good work – simple, direct, evocative illustration of the author’s text.

The noun document is derived from the Latin docere, to teach.  In modern times, it’s also become a verb and taken on the more restricted meaning of furnishing evidence. I’ve discussed how this modern meaning has become increasingly problematic with the rise of digital technologies at length in previous posts. But this isn’t to say that, used properly and with integrity, it can’t still be so.

Documenting text with photographs represents a double struggle: first, the writer and photographer need to understand the extent of what can be noted by words and pictures; and second, they need to provide a context that informs and enlightens while staying true to the reality. These are issues of judgment, ultimately subjective, wherein the author and photographer take in the information, give it shape and present it coherently. It’s more difficult than you think, and when it’s done right it rarely gets noticed apart from the whole, because that’s the whole point.

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18 thoughts on “Good Documentary Photography is Still Alive at the New York Times

  1. StephenJ

    A good article with photography that succinctly explains why the place is dying.

    Too bloody cold for anyone that is sane.

    Despite Brexit…

    And despite global worming.

  2. JR


    I love what photojournalists do and try to do.

    Here the writer evokes life trying to thrive, sometimes thriving, and the photographs reflect this struggle, but they show an environment that is stark, and the black and white tones…contribute to this, yet “they…provide a context that informs and enlightens while staying true to the reality”

    As readers we can read the text, view the photographs, and decide whether there is consistency or contradictions.

    Imagine if governments mandated that news-reporting could ONLY be done using analogue film, with the negative available as public evidence.

    Thanks for bringing this particular piece to us!


  3. Lee Rust

    This was my last ‘free’ article from the NYT for this month. The empty spaces in the town were evoked by the empty spaces in the pictures. Too bad most of the remaining US newspapers have laid off their skilled photogs in favor of stringers with cellphones.

    Then there are the newspapers that don’t remain…

    1. Rob Campbell

      Yes, local press is probably last century’s sweetheart.

      There’s an English language paper that’s published every day here in Mallorca, and many visitors to the island buy it, as do some Brit residents. I do not. I find it a waste of time reading it, and only pick it up in a bar if the Spanish freebies are all taken by other folks.

      I guess that people today have so many better sources of news. A paper is always later than tv. Also, I am not sure that people are really all that concened about local news, which travels rapidy by mouth, anyway. Advertising might well be the support system for the press, but most of the time it takes up space better used with news. It’s as welcome to me in a paper as pop-ups in your monitor!

      Further, I sometimes wonder if the times through which we are passing today mean that international news is far more important and personally interesting than any local stuff. Local stories fade into insignificance when compared with nuclear arms, global warming and polution; We face existential crises that render local football games insignificant to anyone but the mad.

      But even national papers and tv stations use crowd-info sources now; the guy who runs our local tyre-change company showed me his cellphone full of weather atmospherics photos that he sends off to the regional tv station… he drives along the coast each day en route to work and catches the sunrises, clouds etc. The snaps all look good enough.

      Then there is also local radio. And it’s all free.


      1. StephenJ

        Well Rob, you might have isolated yourself by settling on an island in the middle of the Med, but here in London, there is plenty of local news.

        Oh hang on a minute, I thought it was leavers that were isolating ourselves?

        Meanwhile in London there isn’t a day goes past when there isn’t news of a fatal stabbing in our local paper.

        Other than that, the interesting news is what happens internationally, rather than the nasty machinations of one (or all) of the EU’s five presidents, or the howlings of verhofstadt.

        1. Rob Campbell

          The “isolation” was anything but: two hour flight from London is no more than some poor schmucks do by train every day. The reason for coming here was basically a work-related one: natural locations for my calendar shoots. Saved a lot of money. When you have shot in the Bahamas a couple of times you lose the thirst for 747s and the inconveniences associated with travel, film, X-Rays equipment etc. BEA even managed to give me a two-legged tripod on one trip, which was surprising, as I thought I’d packed one with three valid legs. Africa? I went, but had no desire to do it, ditto Singapore. In the Med we have all that’s worth having.

          Isolation: as I scribble, I have the choice of the Beeb or Sky on which to see the ” meaningful vote Mk 2″ in a few minutes time. Come to think of it, as a retired guy, I have more time during the day, every day, to keep up with what goes down in the UK than mamy who have never left its delightful shores.

          Isolation, today, for me, is an entirely different matter of family and the attractions of retirement to be found in family. It does not indicate mental isolation from political realities. Wish it could…


          1. StephenJ

            …. but when you wake up to another grey sky in March in London, and you realise that the place that you woke up in has just told you that you don’t count….

            There is a feeling that people living in the med don’t get…

            Being in touch with Al Beeb, is neither here nor there.

  4. Dan Castelli

    Good documentary photography takes time. If you’re a photog out in the field, time must be supported by money. It also takes research. You’ve got to support research with money. These are three inter-related elements: time, research & money. Because the act of a digital capture is fast, people assumes you can breeze in a place and quickly shoot it up and leave. ‘Googling’ information provides you with facts, but nothing beats scouring sources for data and developing personal contacts. Money for gas, food, lodging and bail, etc. for an extended period of time can disappear quickly even with the most frugal minded. Hard to fund. Many are done as acts of a personal nature by the documentarian without external support.
    Now more than ever, we need documentary stories to inform us. This morning on the CBS Sunday Morning News, the ran a story about the steady disappearance of small rural hospitals across America. Wow. Scary report. But, outside of the affected areas, who would know? Technically not a documentary story, but it informed the viewers. How many other stories like this are out there right now?

  5. Andrew Molitor

    I gotta say, graphically strong photographs that tell an utterly shit story that’s tailor-made for the NYT readers. The pictures spit in the face of the text, which is naive but optimistic. The writer has hope, perhaps well founded, perhaps not. The pictures are nothing but despair and ice.

    It is not always winter in Fergus Falls. It is sometimes quite hot. It is verdant and green in summer. There are, in fact, people living in Fergus Falls. There are businesses that are neither closed, nor bars.

    These pictures are elegantly crafted ruin porn, suitable for confirming the biases of the coastal elite. “Look, there really is nothing there” they can think to themselves, while skimming over the text.

    I think you’ve all been fooled by the graphical elegance of the pictures, and have failed to notice just how absurd they truly are. Even if you’ve never been to the USA, you cannot imagine that it’s always winter there, can you?

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Rob: greetings! I’ve been very busy with all sorts of things, and Ive been in the depressive stage on the manic/depressive continuim – but should have something posted in a day or two. I think you’ll enjoy it. Suffice it to say Im going rogue….

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