Setting Up Your Documentary Photography For Success In Today’s World

Feature image by Anne WornerSince the dawn of readily available photographic tools photographers have been using their talents to document the world around them. These documentary photo projects have had the potential to change the world; exposing atrocities and ending wars. But the world is different now, with information overload it seems like a powerful image no longer carries the weight that it once did, so what can you do as a photographer now to give your documentary photo project the best chance and calling attention to your chosen subject?

In the old days, you could count on newspapers to run with impactful images from war zones or impoverished cities to shed some light on the issues that face the rest of the country while you were deciding what to have for lunch. Now you have two issues, newspapers and the media are more careful not to offend with the images that they post and at the same time people are bombarded with shock and awe images online by the minute and have become desensitized to all but the most graphic and disturbing of imagery.

That said, you don’t need the media or newspapers to get your message out these days, that is the glory of social media. You just need some solid imagery, a good story/subject, and the know how to promote it on social media in the right way to get the attention that it needs. So in some ways, it is easier than ever for your documentary photo project to have an impact on the world (or at the very least the subject of your documentary) and in other ways, it is also much more difficult.

Image by Konrad Lembcke

Starting with a Plan

The first step to ensuring that your photos have the desired effect is to sit down and really set out a plan before you even start shooting. What are your goals for the project, what are your trying to document, and what ways do you plan on using those images to promote it. If you know how you plan on promoting the project you can have eyes out during the process for images that will help you do that promotion better.

For example, say that you wanted to highlight the water shortage in a small African village. While you are in the village taking images you could make sure to take images of children or elderly members of the village. These images will be more impactful to joe and sally average than a picture of a healthy looking adult would be. That is not to say you should not capture the entire story and document what you set out to document, but if you have an idea in your head about how you want to promote your project you can better shoot your project in a way that will play well into that promotion – rather than working against it, or making it more difficult than its needs to be.

Image by Tuncay


The advent of crowdsourcing has been especially valuable to documentary photo projects because it serves two purposes. Not only is it an effective means of securing the funding needed to make your documentary photo project a reality, but it also serves as marketing for the project itself.

This has the effect of creating some early fans of the project before you ever complete it. This means, in theory, once your project is done, you already have a collection of individuals who are interested in seeing your work, but also are more likely to share and help promote the project (assuming you were able to creatively tell your story well).

Sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and GoFundMe are invaluable resources because they allow obscure projects to obtain funding. It’s not just big names and big brands, these sites are littered with success stories of people getting their projects funded because they were able to effectively get their vision across and capture the imagination of individuals with money to spare.

Kickstarter has the most brand awareness but is also fairly risky because if you don’t meet your goal, you don’t get any money. IndiGogo on the other hand, you can setup your campaign so that you get whatever money you earn, no matter if your goal is met or not. This is a better way to go, as if things don’t go as planned you can still move forward with your project with whatever support you did receive, rather than having to go back to square one.

Robin Hammond, the photographer behind Mental Illness, told Time in 2015 that a key to getting funding and awareness about your project is to not wait for the money before starting your project. Individual investors need to trust you with their money (as do Crowdsourcing supporters), which for a photo project means they need to be able to see more than your idea/story intentions, they need to see that you can actually pull them off. So if you have the means to get started on your project on your own, do so, this way you will have some proof and examples to show when you start looking for funding.

A Question of Timeliness

There is something that also needs to be said for having timeliness with your documentary photo project, and I don’t mean finishing it quickly. I mean the time that you choose to pursue and promote it. Documentary photo projects are much more marketable when they piggyback on the coattails of major news stories – so for example, if you did a photo project in a small village that is now involved in a civil war that is making headlines, this would be something that editors and media companies would be very interested in licensing. Which has the added benefit both supporting your work and getting it published in front of many more people that you likely could have on your own.

That is not to say that you should go looking for stories that will be in the news, because as we all know, predicting what will and will not make worldwide headlines is next to impossible. But watching the news, paying attention to world events, and generally being aware of what is going on in the world will greatly help you to discern if a story may have some potential for this avenue of promotion and profit.

Image by Mario Mancuso

The Reality

You shouldn’t go out as a documentary photographer looking to make money, the story you are trying to tell or expose needs to be at the heart of your motivations. The sad reality is that you could do everything in your power to promote and spread your work and it could still not be enough.

So, in the end, you need to be able to feel good and right about your story – regardless of if the rest of the world takes notice. Do what you love, and document what you care about.