Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Lens On Life

Documentary photography holds the power to capture moments of historical significance, to broaden our exposure to people, places and experiences beyond our reach, to shape (or shatter) our perceptions and to offer an authentic view of humanity.
Text & Photography By Stephanie Calabrese Roberts Published in Shooting
Student pianists await their moment in the spotlight at the annual holiday recital at Villa Serena in Conyers, Georgia.
Student pianists await their moment in the spotlight at the annual holiday recital at Villa Serena in Conyers, Georgia.
A moment of hush among the bridesmaids before the Webster/Tate wedding ceremony in Apalachicola, Florida.

6. At least once each week, carve out and schedule a one-hour break in your day to explore an unfamiliar environment.

Use this time to go for a quick drive, walk beyond your neighborhood, pedal your bike off the usual route or ride the train and get off at an unfamiliar destination. Let yourself wander and find inanimate objects (organic or man-made) that seem to express your feelings of the moment.

Let it get a little awkward. There's something about documenting suspended moments of awkwardness that moves me—like silent record scratches that pierce the predictable rhythm of life in motion. They create tension and make me feel a little anxious, but in a good way.

Don't shy away from shooting these awkward moments because your subject isn't smiling or because elements have aligned in ways that create visual tension. Be a witness to that tension and expose it.

I'm not suggesting you shoot with malice or the intent to embarrass or expose your subject in a hurtful way. However, I do believe that if your heart is grounded in respect and wonderment for your subject, it's okay to be honest in the portrayal of the moment, even if the moment is a little bit awkward or quirky. As documentary photographers, our aim is to shine a light on what's true, and the truth is, we often connect most deeply with one another in the context of awkward moments.

7. Reveal the truth responsibly and seek positive change.

Some of the most powerful aspects of documentary photography are its capacity to reveal unseen or ignored social injustices and its potential to inspire awareness, dialogue, action and positive change. While the path of social documentary can be intense, intellectually complex, physically demanding and emotionally draining, the call to photograph and share stories on behalf of people in challenged and often dire circumstances is a special blessing.

Whether you're supporting the efforts of an NGO or working on your own, be courageous and reveal the truth with dignity and respect for your subjects. Find a way to make a positive impact in the lives of your subjects. Consider creating a Fair Content agreement ( as an active step toward positive change.

Stephanie Calabrese Roberts is an award-winning documentary photographer and a regular contributor to Shutter Sisters, the most popular women's photography community online. In addition to Lens on Life, Stephanie is the author of the best-selling The Art of iPhoneography: A Guide to Mobile Creativity and a co-author of Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters Guide to Shooting from the Heart. She's also the founder of Lens on Life, Inc. (, a nonprofit organization that inspires, cultivates and promotes a visual voice for children and young adults living in material poverty and challenged conditions around the world. See more of her work at

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