Toward the end of the century, some photographers focused their cameras on ordinary people. In New York, newspaperman Jacob Riis wrote about the plight of the poor. When he learned of flash photography, he used it to expose the dark, squalid living conditions of immigrants and children in the city. These were later collected in a book of street photography called How the Other Half Lives. His photos helped bring about new child labor laws and better schools, proving social documentary photography could effect social change. A few decades later, sociologist Lewis Hine used his camera to expose the cruelty of child labor in the Appalachian Mountains.
Twentieth-century documentarians expand the field.
In the 1930s, American photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans were employed by the Farm Security Administration to document the struggles of migrant workers and sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Lange’s photos, like the iconic Migrant Mother, helped raise awareness and spur the federal government to send aid.
During that same tumultuous decade, French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson took photographs all over Europe, obsessed by the idea that a photograph could “fix eternity in an instant.” After World War II, he joined Robert Capa and other photographers in the founding of Magnum Photos, a picture agency whose mission was to serve humanity by recording images all over the world.
Then in the 1960s, photographer Diane Arbus used documentary photography to bring representation to marginalized groups. Her subjects included exotic dancers, nudists, carnival performers, elderly people, children, mothers, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. A decade later, Nan Goldin would become famous for her photographs of drag queens in Boston and the post-punk scene in New York.
For almost two centuries, documentary photography has been a means for artists to shine a light on injustice and expand the circle of concern to include all of humanity.