Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Quotes

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Looking for some amazing photojournalism and documentary photography quotes? Then you’ve come to the right place.

Below we’ve listed over 100 of our favorite quotes from master photographers known for their photojournalism and documentary photography work.

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The Best Documentary Photography Quotes

What Makes a Good Documentary Photo?

What I want is the world to remember the problems and the people I photograph. What I want is to create a discussion about what is happening around the world and to provoke some debate with these pictures. Nothing more than this. I don’t want people to look at them and appreciate the light and the palate of tones. I want them to look inside and see what the pictures represent, and the kind of people I photograph.

Sebastião Salgado

Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.

Don McCullin

There is no doubt that my photographs have a very strong religious overtone, they are like twentieth-century icons. When human beings are suffering, they tend to look up, as if hoping for salvation. And that’s when I press the button.

Don McCullin

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.

Ansel Adams

A documentary photograph is not a factual photograph per se. It is a photograph which carries the full meaning of the episode.

Dorothea Lange

There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough – there has to be vision and the two together can make a good photograph. It is difficult to describe this thin line where matter ends and mind begins.

Robert Frank

Photography cannot change the world, but it can show the world, especially when it changes.

Marc Riboud

Running through a lot of traditional photojournalism there is an overwhelming sense of… pictures that say something, that define something. I’m not trying to define things. I’m trying to explore things. I’m trying to ask questions.

Alex Webb

Photography has the capacity to provide images of man and his environment that are works of art as well as moments in history.

Cornell Capa

I try with my pictures to raise a question, to provoke a debate, so that we can discuss problems together and come up with solutions.

Sebastiao Salgado
Documentary Photography Quotes, Sebastião Salgado
Region of Chimborazo, Ecuador. 1998. © Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas images

Finding your Subject

I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.

Diane Arbus

The Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination and I think it’s true. I would never choose a subject for what it means to me or what I think about it. You’ve just got to choose a subject – and what you feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold if you just plain choose a subject and do it enough.

Diane Arbus

The subject matter is so much more important than the photographer.

Gordon Parks

I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is to acknowledge their existence.

Mary Ellen Mark

The best advice I can give to young documentary photographers who are starting their careers is to never lose sight of their goals and to follow their hearts.

Mary Ellen Mark

I don’t believe you can see what’s beyond the edge unless you put your head over it; I’ve many times been right up to the precipice, not even a foot or an inch away. That’s the only place to be if you’re going to see and show what suffering really means…

Don McCullin

I very much like to work on long-term projects… There is time for the photographer and the people in front of the camera to understand each other. There is time to go to a place and understand what is happening there. …When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects.

There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him.

Sebastiao Salgado

When you look at my work, you will notice the absence of still life and landscapes. I am interested in human beings, their lives, their habitats, their behavior, and their relationships, familial and beyond.

Cornell Capa

The personality of the photographer, his approach, is really more important than his technical genius.

Lee Miller

To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.

Elliott Erwitt
Documentary Photography Quotes, Erwitt
Prado Museum, Madrid, 1995 © Elliot Erwitt/Magnum Photos

Capturing the Story

My photography is the result of being there at the right moment.

Rene Burri

I feel it is the heart, not the eye, that should determine the content of the photograph. What the eye sees is its own. What the heart can perceive is a very different matter.

Gordon Parks

If your pictures are not good enough you are not close enough.

Robert Capa

Stop trying to get it right. Just take the picture.  

Sally Mann

The eye should learn to listen before it looks.

Robert Frank

The pictures are there, and you just take them.  

Robert Capa

Saturate yourself with your subject and the camera will all but take you by the hand.

Margaret Bourke-White

It’s about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception. You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.

Elliott Erwitt

If anyone gets in my way when I’m making a picture, I become irrational. I’m never sure what I am going to do, or sometimes even aware of what I do – only that I want that picture.

Margaret Bourke-White

The moment always dictates in my work. What I feel, I do. This is the most important thing for me, Everybody can look, but they don’t necessarily see. I never calculate or consider; I see a situation and I know that it’s right, even if I have to go back to get the proper lighting.

Andre Kertesz

Everything is propaganda for what you believe in, actually, isn’t it? I don’t see that it could be otherwise. The harder and the more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you’re a propagandist. Conviction, propaganda, faith. I don’t know, I never have been able to come to the conclusion that that’s a bad word.

Dorothea Lange
Documentary Photography Quotes, dorothea lange
Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange, 1936 © Dorothea Lange Estate

Taking pictures is like tiptoeing into the kitchen late at night and stealing Oreo cookies.

Diane Arbus

When I approach people, I do it with respect, with deference; I do it slowly and gently and I think about the way I move, the way I speak and the way I use the camera. I let them know that I respect them and what they’re going through.

James Nachtwey

Photo-reporting presents the essentials of a problem, or it records an event or impressions. An event is so rich in possibilities that you hover around while it develops. You hunt for the solution. Sometimes you find it in the fraction of a second; sometimes it takes hours, or even days. There is no standard solution, no recipe; you must be alert, as in the game of tennis.  

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn’t go too fast. The subject must forget about you. Then, however, you must be very quick. So, if you miss the picture, you’ve missed it. So what?

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Traditional photojournalists arrive with an idea of what they are going to produce or what the editor wants. I approach a subject very much as a street photographer and a wanderer, without preconceptions. I try to leave it extremely intuitive and exploratory.

Alex Webb

Everyone asks me how I get my subjects to open up to me. There’s no formula to it. It’s just a matter of who you are and how you talk to people – of being yourself. Your subjects will trust you only if you’re confident about what you’re doing. They can sense that immediately.

I’m really bothered by photographers who first approach a subject without a camera, try to establish a personal relationship, and only then get out their cameras. It’s deceptive. I think you should just show up with a camera, to make your intentions clear. People will either accept you or they won’t.

Mary Ellen Mark

Sometimes I photograph without looking through the viewfinder. I have mastered that well enough, it is almost as if I were looking through it.  

Josef Koudelka
Koudelka, Documentary Photography Quotes
Warsaw Pact troops invasion. Prague, Czechoslovakia. 1968. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

The Power of Single Images

I don’t want to just be a photo essayist; I’m more interested in single images…. once that I feel are good enough to stand on their own.

Mary Ellen Mark

It is a great honor for me to be compared to Henri Cartier-Bresson…But I believe there is a very big difference in the way we put ourselves inside the stories we photograph. He always strove for the decisive moment as being the most important. I always work for a group of pictures, to tell a story.

If you ask which picture in a story I like most, it is impossible for me to tell you this. I don’t work for an individual picture. If I must select one individual picture for a client, it is very difficult for me.

Sebastiao Salgado

What is important to my work is the individual picture. I photograph stories on assignment, and of course they have to be put together coherently. But what matters most is that each picture stands on its own, with its own place and feeling.

Steve McCurry

My ultimate goal is to try to make the ordinary look extraordinary.

Martin Parr

Isolated images are not the most representative of my work. What I do best are probably groups of interrelated pictures which tell a story. My pictures are the ‘words,’ which make ‘sentences,’ which in turn make up the story.  

Cornell Capa

Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson King George
Coronation of King George VI, London, England. May, 1937 © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Nothing But the Truth

I like saying what’s what.

Walker Evans

To know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting, and often false.

Dorothea Lange

When I was just starting out, I met Cartier-Bresson. He wasn’t young in age but, in his mind, he was the youngest person I’d ever met. He told me it was necessary to trust my instincts, be inside my work, and set aside my ego. In the end, my photography turned out very different to his, but I believe we were coming from the same place.

Sebastiao Salgado

The camera enables us to keep a kind of visual record. We photo-reporters are people who supply information to a world in haste and swamped, willy-nilly, in a morass of printed matter. This abbreviation of the statement which is the language of photography is very potent; we express, in effect, and a judgment of what we see, and this demands intellectual honesty. We work in terms of reality, not of fiction, and must therefore “discover”, not fabricate.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

A photograph draws its beauty from the truth with which it is marked. For this very reason, I refuse all the tricks of the trade and professional virtuosity which could make me betray my canon. As soon as I find a subject which interests me, I leave it to the lens to record truthfully.

Andre Kertesz

We are drowning in images. Photography is used as a propaganda tool, which serves to sell products and ideas. I use the same approach to show aspects of reality.

Martin Parr

I realized I couldn’t be a journalist because I like to take a side, to have an opinion, and a point a view; I liked to step across the imaginary boundary of the objective view that the journalist is supposed to have and be involved.

Annie Leibovitz

It’s always seemed to me that photography tends to deal with facts whereas film tends to deal with fiction.

Diane Arbus

I just think it’s important to be direct and honest with people about why you’re photographing them and what you’re doing. After all, you are taking some of their soul, and I think you have to be clear about that.

Mary Ellen Mark

The subject gives you the best idea of how to make a photograph. So I just wait for something to happen.

Mary Ellen Mark

The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.

Robert Capa
D Day Landing, Robert Capa
D-Day, Normandy by Robert Capa, 1944 © Magnum Photo
Interpretation of Reality

I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others. Perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.

Robert Frank

I’m always looking outside, trying to look inside. Trying to say something that is true. But maybe nothing is really true. Except what’s out there. And what’s out there is always changing.

Robert Frank

The truth is somewhere between the documentary and the fictional, and that is what I try to show. What is real one moment has become imaginary the next. You believe what you see now, and the next second you don’t anymore.

Robert Frank

I do not document anything, I give an interpretation.

Andre Kertesz

The camera is an extension of yourself… Your story treatment may be subjective, but it is important to remain objective as to truth.

Cornell Capa

A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.

Diane Arbus

Lately I’ve been struck with how I really love what you can’t see in a photograph. An actual physical darkness. And it’s very thrilling for me to see darkness again.

Diane Arbus

Photography is all about secrets. The secrets we all have and will never tell.

Kim Edwards

If it doesn’t have ambiguity, don’t bother to take it. I love that, that aspect of photography – the mendacity of photography – it’s got to have some kind of peculiarity in it or it’s not interesting to me.

Sally Mann

It’s important to understand it’s OK to control the subject. If most editorial stories were photographed just as they are, editors would end up throwing most in the waste basket. You have to work hard at making an editorial picture. You need to re-stage things, rearrange things so that they work for the story, with truth and without lying.

Alfred Eisenstaedt
VJ Day, Times Square, Eisenstaedt
V-J Day Kiss, Times Square, New York. 1945 © Alfred Eisenstaedt Estate

Documentary and the Role of the Photographer

I’m sometimes called a ‘documentary photographer’ but… a man operating under that definition could take a sly pleasure in the disguise. Very often I’m doing one thing when I’m thought to be doing another.

Walker Evans

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

What is photojournalism? Occasionally, a very unique photo, in which form is precise and rich enough and content has enough resonance, is sufficient in itself – but that’s rarely the case. The elements of a subject that speak to us are often scattered and can’t be captured in one photo; we don’t have the right to force them together, and to stage them would be cheating… which brings us to the need for photojournalism.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

In photo-journalistic reporting, inevitably, you’re an outsider.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

My first priority when taking pictures is to achieve clarity. A good documentary photograph transmits the information of the situation with the utmost fidelity; achieving it means understanding the nuances of lighting and composition, and also remembering to keep the lenses clean and the cameras steady.

Sam Abell

A photojournalist makes snap decisions; based on the ability to quickly assess situations and record one’s perceived truth.

Jack Dykinga

A photographer… gets right inside the story, gets accepted as part of it, stands in the right place at the right time, and presses the shutter.

Bill Hurn

Documentary: That’s a sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear… The term should be documentary style… You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless.

Walker Evans

[Being a great photojournalist is] a matter of getting out on a damn limb and sawing it off behind you.

Lee Miller
Lee Miller in Hitler's bath
Lee Miller in Hitler’s bath, April 1945 © Lee Miller Archives, England.

You know, a documentary is only interesting once in a while. If you look at a whole book of Dorothea [Lange]’s where she has row after row of people bending over and digging out carrots – that can be very tedious. And so it’s only once in a while that something happens that is worth doing.

Imogen Cunningham

As photographers we sell “emotion not emulsion,” the tools are immaterial, the resulting piece is all important.

Jeff Adams

The documentary photographer aims his camera at the real world to record truthfulness. At the same time, he must strive for form, to devise effective ways of organizing and using the material. For content and form are interrelated. The problems presented by content and form must be so developed that the result is fundamentally true to the realities of life as we know it. The chief problem is to find a form that adequately represents the reality.

Paul Strand

I think photojournalism is documentary photography with a purpose.

W. Eugene Smith

As long as there’s journalism, there will be photojournalism. They’re two halves of a whole. And although they certainly won’t last forever, for the moment I don’t see either one of them coming to an end.

Roland Barthes, in his book Camera Lucida, stated that photography, rather than film or television, is the collective memory of the world. As I see it, he’s right about this. Photography immortalize a moment, which then becomes a symbol, a reference. Photography is universal language; it doesn’t need translation. It’s collective memory is a mirror in which our society continually observes itself…

Sebastiao Salgado

If you call yourself an artist, you won’t get anything published. Call yourself a photojournalist, and then you can do whatever you want.

Robert Capa

I hope to stay unemployed as a war photographer till the end of my life.

Robert Capa

[Photographer needs:] creativity, style, elegance, wit and craft. [A photojournalist also needs that and] courage, stamina, cunning and luck.

Elliott Erwitt

A sense of timing is the most important part of the life of a professional photographer. I have an uncanny way of being at the right place at the right time. And if the time is not right, I can be patient, stay in that place for hours, willing things to come.

Don McCullin
don mccullin photography
Grenade Thrower, Vietnam, 1968 © Don McCullin

Documentary Quotes From Non-Photographers

I treat the photograph as a work of great complexity in which you can find drama. Add to that a careful composition of landscapes, live photography, the right music and interviews with people, and it becomes a style.

Ken Burns

Journalism is nine-tenths being in the right places at the right time.

Andrew Marr

In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.

Alfred Hitchcock

Journalism is the first rough draft of history.

Philip L Graham

The purpose of art actually is, in many cases, to make you feel quite uncomfortable. Or at least to go to that place that’s already of discomfort inside of you and tap into that.

Michael Moore

There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.

Walter Lippmann

A news story should be like a mini skirt on a pretty woman. Long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting.

Anonymous, linked to a Texas newspaper editor

Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it.

John Hersey

A petty reason perhaps why novelists more and more try to keep a distance from journalists is that novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction.

Graham Greene

Reality television hasn’t killed documentaries, because there are so many great documentaries still being made, but it certainly has changed the landscape. There is this breed of gimmicky documentary that is basically a reality show.

Todd Phillips

The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.

Susan Sontag

When you’re shooting a feature that costs $200,000 a day with a crew of 250, you don’t want accidents; you want to know exactly what’s going to happen. But with a documentary, you don’t, so you have to be sensitive to accidents because that is where the gold is.

Sydney Pollack

Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.

Robert Flaherty

Give us adequate images. We lack adequate images. Our civilization does not have adequate images. And I think a civilization is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it doesn’t develop an adequate language for adequate images.

Werner Herzog

I began to feel that the drama of the truth that is in the moment and in the past is richer and more interesting than the drama of Hollywood movies. So I began looking at documentary films.

Ken Burns

If the first casualty of war is truth, the last is memory.

Peter Davis

Have a Favorite Documentary Photography Quote?

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this list of our favorite photojournalism and documentary photography quotes. If you found it useful, then don’t forget to bookmark the page and revisit the quotes again when you’re in need of some inspiration.

Have a favorite quote from the list? Let us know in the comments section below. Likewise, let us know if we’ve missed any of your favorite documentary photography quotes. 

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Founder of Photogpedia.com. Photography enthusiast, occasional filmmaker, part-time writer and full-time dreamer. Rediscovered photography in 2012 and have been trying to level up my photography skills since (I'm getting there) #chasingthecreative

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