Social documentary photography (sometimes called concerned photography) is the recording of what the world looks like, with a social and/or environmental focus. It is a form of documentary photography, with the aim to draw attention to ongoing social issues, inequality and injustice. The genre has its roots in the 19th-century work of Henry Mayhew, Jacob Riis, and Lewis Hine, but began to take further form through the photographic practice of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the United States.

The first years of the twentieth century were marked by the growth of modern industry and the wealth it afforded the era’s upper and middle classes. However, those less fortunate continued to live and work in derelict conditions. Photography had by now been established as a medium capable of capturing both objective reality and subjective interpretation and the recent influx of people intro metropolitan areas gave photographers rich opportunities to capture daily life. Jacob Riis, a Danish-born journalist and photographer, became one of the pioneers of social documentary photography with his groundbreaking work, “How the Other Half Lives” (1890). Riis used flash photography to capture the squalid living conditions of New York City tenements, exposing the dire circumstances faced by immigrants and the urban poor. His images, accompanied by vivid descriptions, brought attention to the social issues plaguing society and spurred reform efforts.

Building upon Riis’s foundation, Lewis Hine (1874-1940) expanded the scope of social documentary photography. While many portraits of society from the period appealed to sentiment, the documentation of child workers by Hine took a more factual approach. He used his camera as a tool for social change, focusing primarily on child labour and worker exploitation. His photographs, captured with sensitivity and empathy, revealed the harsh working conditions endured by children in factories, mines, and farms. Hine became active in the Progressivist movement in New York and, rather than asking the wealthy to pity the poor, he sought to change public opinion about the working classes and the unemployed. His images appeared on posters and in bulletins and journals that advocated for the reform of child labour laws. Hine chose vantage points that emphasized the enormity of factory machines in relation to the children that were tasked with managing them. He also sought to ensure the viewer saw child workers as individuals by providing their names alongside his images, giving specificity and credibility to his investigative report. Often he gained permission to enter factories under false pretenses by convincing supervisors that he was a salesman photographing machines rather than child workers. Hine was instrumental in the eventual passage of child labour laws in the United States.

Over time the genre evolved alongside the development of photography as a whole. Technological advancements, such as the introduction of smaller and more portable cameras, allowed photographers to work more discreetly and capture candid moments of daily life. This shift facilitated a more intimate and immersive portrayal of marginalized communities. A number of photographers produced illustrated books that attempted to define various aspects of society. Such books exmplify photography’s transformation of portraiture into a form of sociological and ethnographic study. Through the collection of images, photographers attempted to represent cultures and societies rather than isolated individuals. One of the most elaborate of these projects is The North American Indian (1907-30) by Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), which even had an air of scientific objectivity due to its breadth and encylopedic organisation.

Many photographers of this period sought to preserve aspects of society that they thought might disappear. Their goal was not only to inform, but also record a particular way of life for posterity. Born in Munich, E. O. Hoppé (1878-1972) moved to London at the turn of the century and soon became one of the city’s most successful portrait photographers. Although Hoppé’s studio served elite members of society, from King George V to Arthur Conan Doyle, the photographer was fascinated by London street life and sought to capture a wider range of society. He aspired to make a pictorial record of the distinctive types of people that he believed would disappear because of changing conditions, which he published in two books: Taken from Life (1922) and London Types (1926). Hoppé photographed many of the cities colourful characters and took time to converse with his sitters in an effort to ensure that the resulting photographs would present distinct individuals rather than anonymous types. Like Hine, he was careful to include names of the individuals he captured.

Humphrey Spender (1910-2005) took up photography as a form of social activism in England. Photographically his influences came from Germany and Eastern Europe. In 1936 the socialist journal Left Review commissioned Spender to photograph more than 200 men who were particpating in a protest march from Jarrow, Tyneside to London. The men made the journey to demand jobs for the growing number of unemployed and impoverished in their home town. The publication of Spender’s photographs helped draw attention to the march. He later joined Mass Observation, a large-scale investigation into the habits of people in Britain that was started in Bolton in 1937. By 1938 he had taken more than 900 pictures of the industrial town and its inhabitants. Spender believed that he could produce the most accurate record of behaviour when people were unaware of being observed. He used a Zeiss Contax camera because its almost silent sutter release, making it ideal for being the unobserved observer.

Elsewhere, in the United States, Walker Evans (1903-75) also resorted to subterfuge in order to take photographs unobserved. Evans became best known for his work chronicaling the effects of the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). However, in 1938, the year he finished at the FSA, he embarked on a three-year project on the New York subway during which he surreptitiously photographed passengers using a hidden 35mm camera. Evans was attepting to produce anonymous portraits and the serial nature of the images suggests a universality amoung the passengers as they travel through the subterranean world of the city’s subway system.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the United States employed photographers to document the impact of the economic crisis on rural communities. Figures like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks captured poignant images that highlighted the struggles and resilience of individuals affected by poverty and displacement. Their work not only served as a visual record of the era but also contributed to the growing awareness and empathy towards those experiencing hardship.

Antlitz der Zeit: 60 Fotos deutscher Menschen (Faces of our Time) by August Sander (1876-1964), was one of the many photographic books of portraits published during the last years of Germany’s Weimar Republic. It responded to the instability of contemporary social identities - brought on by Germany’s economic and politcal turmoil - and attempted to define a link between appearance and German character. Photographers sought to achieve this connection in a variety of ways. Sander maintaed a respectful distance from his sitters and allowed them to have some control over how they appeared before his lens. Face of Our Time presents a cross section of the German nation organised according to occupational and social types. Starting with portraits of farmers, it ends with portraits of those that later the Nazis would describe as ‘degenerate’: the sick, disabled, gypsies and beggars. Its heterogeneity is why the Nazis destroyed copies of both the book and the publisher’s printing blocks in 1936.

An English pioneer of socially committed photography is Bill Brandt. He moved to England in 1931 and worked for several magazines, for which he published coverages on people affected by the Great Depression. In 1936 he published the illustrated book “The English at Home”, in which he portrayed the English class system. He traveled to the Midlands and to northern England where he photographed the effects of the Great Depression.

After 1945 the dedicated, collectively organized social documentary photography no longer was able to gain ground, except in England, where the tradition lingered on a bit longer. The vigorous anti-communism of the McCarthy era had anathematized the engaged, liberal social documentary photography with the verdict of evil. Great documentary photographers of the postwar era, such as W. Eugene Smith, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, William Klein or Mary Ellen Mark were either lone fighters or were forced to work as story-suppliers for the large illustrated magazines (especially Life). Squeezed into the economic restraints of circulation increases, political outsider positions found little room.

The social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s saw a renewed interest in social documentary photography. Photographers such as Sebastião Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark, and Eugene Richards documented civil rights movements, poverty, homelessness, and other social issues. Their images became powerful tools for activism, challenging societal norms and advocating for social justice.

The relationship between social documentary photography and photographic history is symbiotic. It represents a continuum of photographers using the medium to engage with society and provoke social change. Social documentary photography has been influenced by advancements in technology, shifts in cultural and political climates, and the evolving role of photography in society. Similarly, the genre has influenced the development of photography as a whole, pushing boundaries and expanding the boundaries of what can be captured and communicated through images.