When is a photograph not just a photograph?

visual sociology

It seems an ideal time to pull together my thoughts on Visual Sociology and how it differs from documentary photography and photojournalism. Next week is the 2013 IVSA conference at Goldsmiths and I am excited to be attending one of the days. Happily, this also coincides with the publication of my first pieces of ‘visual sociology’. The visual has always interested me and my background in design, photography and graphics has built up a keen interest in where the boundaries of my sociological interests and artistic interests meet.

A question posed by one of the editors about my initial submission for the Call for papers when I first submitted my image ‘Occupy and resist’ got me considering then an image becomes Sociology and when it is not. Harper (2012) and Becker (2007) both have some interesting commentary on this and essentially agree on several points. There is a close relation between photojournalism, documentary photography and visual sociology but there are some features that can help identify the boundaries. Like any cultural object, Becker proposes that the context is key to to understanding the intended meaning of an image and I would like to propose a framework which, helps make the boundaries more distinct.

Photojournalism –  Capturing an image. Freezing a moment in time that can be easily read by a viewer. Often accompanied by little in terms of written explanation.

Documentary PhotographyRecording a subject, a world or a culture through systematic exploration. Usually accompanied by descriptive texts describing what was seen or experienced by the photographer.

Visual SociologyUnderstanding and explaining the image. Visual Sociology takes the written explanation beyond the descriptive and into the analytical.

Inevitably, there are always exceptions to a rule and things are never this clear-cut but hopefully this summary can provide a framework within which to begin to explore the ideas further. It is not to say that an image must sit within one or the other ad infinitum. Becker examines Harper’s images of tramps within his chapter and goes into greater depth about how the images could be considered in all there categories but how essentially, the framework I have outlined in terms of their presentation and context determines which way they would be classified.


Becker, H.S. (2007) Telling About Society, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press

Harper, D. (2012) Visual Sociology, Abingdon, Routledge