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“It is no longer a unified force meant only to ig- nite social change or reveal flaws in society, but rath- er, it is a tool that allows one to take a look at a community from within, and also have the breathing space to step back and reflect on what is seen.“


Social documentary photography had a clear goal then—to instigate social amelioration. Now, the role of the documentary photographer has bled into that of a photojournalist, with the lines between the two often blurred. Traditionally, documentary photography was a style in which the one attempted to explore and reveal a situation or social issue and represent it with minimal distortion. On the other hand, photojournalism is a visual extension of journalism itself, related directly to current headlining news and communicating the visual story that words cannot con- vey alone. Take for instance, the documentation of the recent oils spills in the Gulf of Mexico. Images of birds, otter, and other wildlife covered in oil and dying on the coast sparked heated debates, angry outbursts, and an explosion of condemnation on BP. Massive news coverage ac- companied the images and undoubtedly helped speed up the response to the ecological disaster.


However, contemporary photographers see documentary photography as something more akin to the process of finding truth through experience. “I think a lot of photographers in this genre are obsessed with the idea of telling the truth without realizing how subjective the genre is,” explains photographer Peter DiCampo (‘Life Without Lights’). “[However] in the process of choosing which images and which moments to fit into a story, we really end up choosing the truth. It’s up to us to choose the truth that best represents what we see. But even then, in some way, our own personal feelings on the subject are going to come across.” Truth then, is not composed of hard facts and figures, but of the emotional dialogue one experiences when faced with images of another’s reality.


Instead of only seeking social justice, contemporary documentary photography often finds itself critiquing social relations, and along the way, bringing attention to the rise of new social classes and the forgotten individuals left in its cracks. Andre Hermann in his project ‘Urban Ore: The Secret Life of Scrappers,’ photographed the homeless citizens of the San Francisco Bay Area and their dangerous struggle to scrimp a living out of scrapping metal from abandoned build- ings. What started as a personal project for him eventually became “a story about a functioning community, the recession, and the need to turn a buck at any cost.” Through his images of a group of homeless people living beneath a freeway off-ramp, Hermann attempts not merely to record their daily life, but to show a different perspective of how life was affected by the reces- sion. Though these individuals do not have the legitimate or respectable jobs that are expected of citizens, they too “were just as affected by the recession as every other working person was. When the price of different scrap metals dropped, the man-hours and risk outweighed the re- turn at the scrap yard, causing most of these people to either work harder or find other means to make money.” At the very end, Hermann shows that the homeless have the same desire as any ordinary citizen to make money and earn a living. As a scrapper from the demolished Wash- ington Packing Corporation Tuna Cannery once told Hermann: “Why do they care if we scrap the metal from this building? This place is going to be torn down at some point anyway—we’re doing the owner a favor. If they need it done, why don’t they hire us? We want jobs. We’ll take jobs.”


10 I


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