The Documentary Impulse – Stuart Franklin

More lubricant for the rusty brain cells, this time in the form of ‘The Documentary Impulse‘ (Franklin, 2016). In fact, I am already half way through reading it for a second time.


The book is by the renowned photographer Stuart Franklin, who was responsible for the famous image of a lone man in Tiananmen Square stopping a line of tanks. In it he discusses and attempts to explain what has driven the human race to record events since man lived in caves to the present day.

The book cover covers the driving need or impulse to document life from cave paintings to everyday life. How photography full of bias and sentimentality tried to capture a lost Eden rooted in Colonial outposts or concord nations. The use of documentary photography to highlight inadequate or substandard care of the mentally ill or those in prison as a force to drive change or reform. The use of image-choc (shocking pictures) to influence or prick public and political conscience is discussed, along with the arguable concept of ‘Compassion Fatigue’.

Though I found the discussions regarding the way documentary photography has influenced and driven change most interesting. From social reform of the poor and child labour to driving political change in the cases of war such as the Nigerian-Biafran war and the Vietnam war.

The book also discusses staged documentary shoots and manipulation of documentary photography.

As I have already said I am halfway through reading it for the 2nd time as I really want to understand what Stuart Franklin is saying. If you are interested in documentary photography or just want to ready a good book about photography I do not think you will be disappointed, this is a well written, well presented and interesting read.


Franklin, S. (2016) The documentary impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.