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Discovering Your Thematic Areas as a Documentary Photographer


Source: Pxfuel


Photography is such a versatile and broad practice with many genre’s. You have Medical, Portrait, Forensic, Fine art and the list goes on. While many people pick a specific type of photography to delve into, what many people don’t do is select thematic areas of focus, especially when it comes to Documentary Photography.


Lets go back to basics, what is Documentary Photography?

Documentary Photography is a narrative/story being told through photographs. It usually involves real events to provide a factual report of something that has taken place however, over the years, a more conceptual form of Documentary Photography has come into play. Many creatives love this specific genre of Photography due to it’s storytelling elements and the many technical aspects that can be incorporated into such a genre like Portraits, Landscapes, Street Photography, Portraiture and even Photojournalism (many people confuse Photojournalism with Documentary Photography however there are subtle differences which I will write about in another article).


What are thematic areas and how do you choose them?

Now that we’ve covered the basics of Documentary Photography, lets get back to the focal point of this article, discovering your thematic areas. When I talk about thematic areas I am referring to a motif that people usually make work around, this can range to a number of different things such as social injustice, representation, climate change, love, mental health etc. Essentially, it is anything that you find interesting and use as a focal point whenever you create work. Having thematic areas helps to narrow down your work, it is essentially you carving out a niche for yourself in contrast to being a ‘Jack of all trades’.


What are the benefits of having thematic areas?

Although having thematic areas of focus is not a must, it certainly is a plus, especially when it comes to narrowing down the work you make and putting you forward for possible commissions that focus on the thematic areas that you make work around. Let’s use a fictional character called Fethy. Fethy is an Eritrean Documentary Photographer whose thematic areas are social economic issues, human rights injustices and sexual liberation. Whenever Fethy makes work, she always goes back to these three themes. Then an organisation who works with the theme sexual liberation is looking for a documentary photographer to portray this message and comes across Fethys work, which makes it easier for them to know what Fethy is capable of and whether or not she will get the message that they are looking to portray across. This has landed Fethy with not only having her work featured and published by this organisation, but it has also landed her with a couple of assignments around this theme.

Narrow down your work and set yourself apart!

As mentioned above, having an area of focus is not a must, in fact, being able to demonstrate that you are able to make work across a number of different subjects is definitely an advantage! However, when it comes to setting yourself apart and narrowing down the work that you make so that you can be associated with specific matters, knowing what your interests are and making work around it will certainly get you noticed even more and plus, you will actually enjoy carrying out certain assignments because you are making work on a subject that interests you!

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