Wondering About the Definitions

What is the difference between photojournalism, editorial photography, documentary photography, and telling a “photo story”? Well, I wish I knew. The last one seems to be an attempt to leave the terms behind and go with an obvious meaning which does not need defining. The other three seem to be interchangeable, if not, then quite close to it.

“Photojournalism” is probably the most well know of those terms. We think of news photographers, war photographers, and the like. That one, even if it does have some other definition, already has a practical definition in the minds of common man.

As with many of the definitions these days, though, I think the lines are blurring. It goes along with issues like professional and amateur. If that blatantly uncreative studio portrait dude in our local Whatever-Mart is a photography professional, then I am the first to despair in this wonderful art of photography. Similarly, I am utterly shocked with the caliber of photos I see from “amateurs” with a little browsing around Flickr and the like. Maybe Whatever-Mart could not handle them! Let’s get back to our definitions in question.

Now, I would be the last to know, because I am not “in the industry”, but maybe the appearance of “editorial” and “documentary” came from the inadequacy of one word to cover so many meanings. Maybe they designate a particular focus within photojournalism, something more specific. And maybe some guy just thought he would come up with a clever new word as a marketing ploy. I don’t know.

All I can do is look at the words themselves and let the English language tell me what they mean…I might add, like most people out there will have to do to try to understand what photographers are talking about. “Photojournalism” says to me, “using photos to chronicle” something. “Editorial” says “I work for the news media and want to say what I want to say, my way”. And “documentary” brings all the connotations of documentary film and seems to say “I use photos to dig to the roots of a story, to understand and explain it to others”. And “photo story”…this one is easy, is “telling a story with photos”.

So, where do I, Cooper Strange, fit in and what kind of photos do I shoot? Well, not that I really care to have one appellation or another, but it depends on the day (or maybe how good my coffee tasted!). I think I am a little of all those, except for maybe editorial, sometimes more than one, and sometimes none of the above.

I am just thinking out loud. I cannot find any good definitions, but maybe some of you out there know. I would love to be corrected or instructed on the differences. So, here’s to Journo-edi-docu-story-ism. That is my kind of photography!

Cooper Strange Written by:


  1. 2009-05-18

    I usually refer to my photography as photojournalistic in nature when I shoot people. Yet, I do some posed portraits as well. The term has a popular ring to it among photographers. Nice write up.

  2. 2009-05-18

    I think you are right: “it has a ring to it”. It is certainly the most well known and most used term among those choices…among non-photographers, at least. And if you are marketing your photography (that is, if you do it as a business), you really need to know how non-photographers understand these words. I AM a photographer, and I still do not understand the differences.

  3. 2009-05-21

    Just to throw one more definition in the fray, I just heard Bob Krist, easily an established photojournalist, referred to “picture stories” in an interview with Matt Brandon. Nice interview.

    They also talk about truth and how the expression of that in photography has changed in the digital age.

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