10 Inspiring Famous Documentary Photographers

Documentary photographers endeavour to witness and record significant events and important human stories around the world, as truthfully and compelling as possible. The instinct to use cameras in this way is almost as old as the medium itself, attested by the powerful images that survive of the American Civil War.

The genre of documentary photography has been forged by professional photojournalists as well as passionate "amateurs". It is a tradition that has come to be associated with risk-taking and bravery; the willingness to be a witness to disturbing events, including war, and send the crucial evidence from the "front" back to the rest of the world.

I thought I would select 10 famous documentary photographers, who are amongst my all-time favourites. There are so many more to discover, but I hope you find these guys an interesting place to start learning about this kind of photography.


1. Henri Cartier-Bresson


Cartier-Bresson is variously described as a documentary photographer, surrealist artist and photojournalist (indeed, "the father of photojournalism"). Perhaps the most striking characteristic of his work, that separated him from most other photographers in history, is the capacity to combine a crucial, decisive moment with beattifully arranged composition.

Cartier-Bresson trained formally as an artist, in the Paris studio of Andre Lohte, and photography was never merely about just emotion or events for him. It was also about the image as a stand-alone work. You do not need to know much about the subject of a Cartier-Bresson photograph to enjoy looking at it.

His career began in his home country of France, but developed into something that encompassed a huge geographic and historical scope. He photographed war-time France, American culture, the funeral of Ghandi and revolutionary China. Without Cartier-Bresson's work documenting many of the 20th century great events, our understanding of the time would be much weaker.

Henri Cartier-Bresson gallery


2. Mathew Brady


Mathew Brady is a famous documentary photographer of the American Civil War. Despite the shortcomings of early photographic equipment, he was able to capture a feel of this bloody conflict, providing us with a fascinating window on events.

The sheer bulk of early cameras must have made the process of photographing on the sites of recent battles an almighty challenge. Just imagine the mud, the stench, the looters, the shouting, the general hellishness of it. But thank goodness he was able to apply a cool-headed photographic vision to the whole scenario.

The fact that he did so is not only to our benefit, but - as is the case with documentary photographers today - his images enlightened contemporaries who would otherwise have been sheltered from the brutal truth of the conflict in the American Civil War.

New York high society was not accustomed to real pictures of corpses - young boys lying dead with ghastly wounds. But the scandalous effect of these images helped to ferment public opinion against the continuing fighting.

Mathew Brady gallery


3. Dorothea Lange


Dorothea Lange owned a portrait photography studio in San Fracisco when the Wall Street Crash precipitated the worst economic crisis of the 20th century. She felt compelled to leave the posed and manufactured world of commerical images, and document the reality of life in the Golden State.

Lange worked alongside her husband, an economist who was producing a book on the contemporary situation. Much of their joint focus centred around the plight of exploited migrant workers, who struggled to provide for themselves and their families.

This subject matter yielded one of the most famous photographs ever taken: Migrant Mother. This is an incredibly affecting image, depicting a female migrant worker with her two sons draped either side of her. The extraordinary combination of hardship, pride, fear, dignity, stoicism and love in her face has made the image a timeless symbol of motherhood, beyond just the immediate context.

Dorothea Lange gallery


4. Robert Capa


Robert Capa is one of the towering figures in the history of photography. He was a famous documentary photographer who recorded the events of five separate conflicts. He first came to prominence during the Spanish Civil War, where his images captured both the violence and its effects on ordinary people.

"Falling Soldier", an image that depicts a soldier in the exact moment of being hit by a bullet, was taken during this conflict and is one of the most iconic pictures of all time (although there is considerable dbate about its veracity).

Capa's career was characterized by a total fearlessness of entering the eye of the storm. He is the originator of the famous quote, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough". He took this philosophy to extreme lengths in everything he did. For example, thanks to Capa, we have real images of the D-day landings, shot from within the landing craft and amongst the soldiers as they fought their way up the beaches.

Capa went on to co-found the Magnum photo aganecy, before tragically, although perhaps not surprisingly, losing his life after stepping on a landmine in another conflict zone.

Robert Capa gallery


5. Diane Arbus


Diane Arbus' career as a documentary photographer was short, unique and brilliant. She began as a fashion photographer, working alongside her husband Allan Arbus in New York. But, like many of the people on this list, she ended up pursuing the areas that fascinated her most.

Arbus has a reputation for photographing "odd" people, or at least outsiders and people on the fringes of society. In reality she was drawn to people who clearly exhibited the discrepancy between self-image and public image that effects us all. In quite a lot of her pictures, the subjects are holding physical masks of some kind, but everyone in her images is wearing some kind of tragi-comic disguise.

One image that really stands out for me is that of a dwarf, face painted as a clown, standing in the rain sodden field of a touring circus. The line between public entertainer and private misery is literally washed away. In other shots, old women also have their faces painted, but this time with heavily applied make-up, which only serves to highlight their age, rather than disguise it.

Arbus' career sadly ended at just 48, when she took her own life. She left behind a body of work that documented the frail attempts of people to portray themselves as something different, which amounted to a fascinating mirror on contemporary US society.

Diane Arbus gallery


6. Steve McCurry


Steve McCurry's work is both very similar and very different to that of Henri Cartier-Bresson. The point of intersection is their shared capacity to combine emotional force with aesthetic beauty. McCurry's unique eye for natural colours is also something that marks him out as one of the finest modern photographers.

Steve McCurry's career began with a visit to India. Intending to stay for a few weeks, the visual drama of the country held him there for no ess than two years! He has since gone on to record the people, places, events, daily routines and cultures of India and the wider subcontinent.

McCurry's images are characterized by a compelling juxtaposition of the everyday and the extraordinary, the negligible and the grand. This might take the form of a market seller, surrounded by the artefacts of his trade, lost in deep contemplation of the Quran; or perhaps a rugged field worker in Afghanistan, with filthy clothes and muddy skin, glancing at the camera with an expression full of unexpected feeling and intelligence.

McCurry has also taken his camera to other parts of the world, including Japan, Europe and his home country, America. His work is breathtakingly beautiful and rewards repeated viewing.

Steve McCurry gallery


7. Lewis Hine


Like many famous documentary photographers, Lewis Hine picked up a camera with a desire to both expose injustice and force change. Having briefly worked in a factory as a young man, he was very alive to the presence of exploitative child labour throughout America in the early 20th century.

He took up work with the National Child Labour Committee and would often sneek his way into suspicious factories, under the pretence of an inspector. This strategy enabled him to produce a collection of tragic photographs, documenting the stolen childhoods that resulted from ruthless business-people and lax regulation.

Hine's work played no small part on alerting Congress to the urgent need for child labour legislation, which did indeed take effect. despite these achievements, Hine is probably best known for more lighthearted reasons. His photographs of steel workers balanced precariously on struts atop the unfinished Empire State Building are a mainstay of student bedsits!

Lewis Hine gallery


8. Tim Hetherington


Tim Hetherington was documentary photographer whose career began in West Africa and latterly focused on the NATO war in Afhganistan. He was at the very forefront of both my still image and film documentary making when he lost his life reporting on the Libyan revolution of 2011, part of the so-called Arab Spring.

Hetherington's work in Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone documented the turbulent political landscape of the area in the first years of the 21st century. His willingness to photograph life from the perspective of rebels to the governments earnt him powerful enemies, as well as the admiration of the photographic community.

In 2010 Hetherington released a film he had made with Sebastian Junger, called "Restrepo", which was an account of the year the two journalists had spent with a platoon in Afghanistan. In all of Hetherington's work, there is a vivid sense of violence, fear and the sheer physical demands of war.

Tim Hetherington gallery


9. Lauren Greenfield


Lauren Greenfield is a modern documentary photographer, best known for her images that deal with the culture of "thin", propogated by teen magazines, TV shows and celebrity culture in general. Her work explores the impact this has on young women's body image, self-esteem and personal aspirations.

There is a sense, in Greenfield's images, of girls being entirely overwhelmed by a culture that places very explicit pressures on them to appear a certain way. Bedrooms are overflowing with sundry beautifying parafernalia, groups of young women huddle in "pre-going out" rituals - desperate to live up to some ideal that they all share, but that has little correspondence to their individual indentities. This "ideal form" of femininity forces people into such contorted shapes (personally and physically), that eventually the tipping point of anorexia is reached, a subject that Greenfield tackles head-on.

Greenfield is one of the most influential photographers working today and her work appears in numerous publications. She has also produced a film, titled "Kids and Money".

Lauren Greenfield gallery


10. Don McCullin


Don McCullin is primarily known as a war photographer, which forms part of the broad category of documentary photography. This attribution is something that McCullin actually does not like. Having seen so much human suffering and brutality, the very idea of being labelled a "war photographer" is upsetting for McCullin. He has never been expressly drawn towards war itself, just whatever seems to be something that needs a light shone on it.

McCullins's work encompasses a considerable number of 20th century conflicts. Some of his most famous images were produced in Vietnam, including the iconic picture of a shell-shocked soldier. This photograph shows an American soldier clasping his gun and staring straight ahead with glazed-over eyes. For all the insight into war provided by McCullin's pictures of executions, beatings and families torn apart by ruthless murder, this image of a shell-shocked soldier somehow reflects most powerfully on the destructive inhumanity of conflict.

Don McCullin gallery


I hope you enjoy exploring the famous documentary photographers I've introduced here in more detail. Check out the galleries I have linked to for some great online collections of their work. Feel free to leave feedback on this article in the comments...

Where Next?

Photography Equipment Guides

5 Of The Best Online Photo Printing Companies

A List Of Famous Photographers Worth Discovering

Untitled Document

New! Comments

Have your say and share your thoughts below!