Documentary photographers have the uncanny ability to capture the world’s untold stories, offering us glimpses into the myriad facets of human existence.
From the frontlines of conflict to everyday moments, these artists shed light on what often remains in the shadows.
Documentary photography is an art form as much as it is visual proof.
Delving into the realm of this art form, we present the 50 most famous documentary photographers in history whose work has not only defined but also elevated the genre.
Table of Contents
50 of the Most Famous Documentary Photographers, Past & Present
Sekula uses photography as much as writing to critique late capitalism and its social effects.
He published nine books, directed two films, and participated in countless exhibitions. He was internationally awarded for his work.
Petersen is a documentary photographer most known for his work photographing the German nightlife in Cafe Lehmitz.
One of the images from this series was the cover for Tom Wait’s album Rain Dog. He was the founder of the SAFTRA photo agency.
Adams is one of the most recognized for capturing the American landscape and his work is considered fine art photography. However, in 1943, he was invited to document the internees at the refugee camp Manzanar War Relocation Center.
You might know Leibovitz for her portraits. She was the last photographer to capture John Lennon before he was assassinated.
She usually works in the fashion world and does commercial assignments. However, she did documentary photography at first, most famously by going on a tour with the Rolling Stones.
Sander was a German photographer mostly known for documenting society during the Weimar Republic.
His images were published in a book called People of the 20th Century. However, his subjects vary greatly – he even photographed circus performers.
Davidson is an American photographer whose career has been wide and versatile. He was drafted into the US Army where he was assigned as a photographer. Thanks to those images he was hired by a newspaper.
He was later posted in Paris where he photographed the widow of Leon Fauché – which was published in Esquire. Now he’s a member of Magnum’s agency.
Dunn’s work revolves around young and alternative sub-cultures in New York. She’s published three books and released two films.
Her work has been featured and exhibited in the Tate Modern, at the Geffen Contemporary New York, amongst other prestigious locations.
Cian Oba-Smith is one of the youngest authors on this list. He started doing candid portraits and street photography. Now, he’s more focused on documenting communities that have been misrepresented in the media.
He’s interested in exploring the idea of identity and community – how people relate and bond.
Arnold’s work revolves around nature focusing on Alaska.
One of his photos was used in the advertising campaign for the Discovery Channel’s Deathliest Catch where he was featured in season 2.
Don McCullin is a British photojournalist with a strong social focus.
He’s mainly famous for his war photography, but he’s also stated “I don’t want to encourage people to think photography is only necessary through the tragedy of war”.
Ferrato’s work focused on the nightlife of New Your City including famous clubs such as Studio 54 at the beginning of her career.
Later, she engaged in a project to document domestic violence across the US. It was a strong call to action for an urgent social change.
Lange is one of the most famous and influential photographers in history. Her photograph Migrant Mother helped put a face on the consequences of the Great Depression.
She also documented the Japanese Americans’ forced evacuation – to do so, she gave up the Guggenheim Fellowship. She was invited to teach at the CSFA in San Francisco by Ansel Adams.
Burtynsky aims to encourage social change by showing us the consequences of extreme consumerism. Before 2007 he used a large format camera, after that, he switched to digital photography using a high-resolution medium format camera.
He often uses a vantage point of view to photograph industrial landscapes. He’s also a passionate activist for environmental conservationism fighting climate change.
Atget was a pioneer in this field – he dedicated his work to capturing Paris before the French Revolution.
Man Ray acquired a series of his photographs and put together a collection that was published in La Revolution Surréaliste.
Richards photographs the hard real life of many Americans. He’s published books regarding rural and urban poverty, the life and ER painful experiences of cocaine and heroin addicts, amongst other subjects.
He was a documentary photographer from Magnum in two periods of his career. Currently, he’s a member of VII Photo Agency.
Capriotti’s work covers a wide spectrum of topics. He works with many non-profit organizations to raise awareness of intimate stories that would otherwise vanish.
Amongst his clients, there’s the United Nations High Commissioner Refugees and the Canadian Press. He also works with NGOs like the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network.
Halpern documents everyday life. Everything started as he studied at Harvard and did a series on the janitorial staff. That’s when his interest shifted from creating to documenting.
Her photography was highly influenced by Cartier-Bresson. She mainly did street photographs in Manhattan. Her work was in the inaugural exhibition of the photography section of the MoMA.
He is the father of candid street photography as he’s mostly known for his famous concept of the “decisive moment” to make the perfect shot. He co-founded Magnum Photos, and he is one of the most famous documentary photographers in the world.
His most iconic images come from his expedition to the Ross Sea and the South Pole as part of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova.
He used a camera with glass plates and built a tiny darkroom in the camp. He also brought a cinematograph to film the expedition.
Riis is known to have used photography to prompt social change. At the beginning of the twentieth century, his work focused on the impoverished people of New York.
He was amongst the first photographers in the US to use flash.
Nachtwey specializes in war photography. He’s worked with Time magazine since 1984 and was a member of Magnum Photos.
He co-founded VII Photo Agency where he was a member until 2011.
Dominis covered covers some of the most important events in recent history.
He documented Woodstock, covered the Vietnam War for Time magazine, and assisted and photographed six Olympic Games, amongst many other achievements.
Cahana’s photography has been published in National Geographic and has won multiple awards such as the World Press Photo, and the Peabody Award, amongst others.
In 2020, she made a short film about her father living in a care facility during the COVID pandemic – it was highly acclaimed.
Starting as a model and later a fashion photographer, Miller turned to documentary photography as she covered World War II for Vogue magazine.
She was also Man Ray’s muse, lover, and student – together they rediscovered Solarization and made it their signature technique.
Battaglia is famous for documenting the fight against the mafia in her hometown – Palermo, Sicily. However, she also documented everyday life in a masterful way.
She also founded and directed the International Center of Photography in Palermo – a lifelong dream of hers that became real in 2017.
Hines’ documenting photography focused on immigrants’ rights at the beginning of the twentieth century. The National Child Labor Committee hired him to document the working conditions of children.
To gain access, he often had to use disguises. His images and notes helped improve and enforce child labor laws across the US.
Parr is a British photographer whose work makes a satirical comment about social differences.
He’s done work in rural communities, the working class, the middle class, and the wealthy. He also has projects on global consumerism and mass tourism.
Mary Ellen Mark
Mark was a widely awarded documentary photographer but she’s also famous for her advertising photography.
Amongst the most renowned awards, there’s the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award by the World Photography Organization and the Lifetime Achievement in Photography by Goerge Eastman House.
She also received three scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Her photographs focus on the LGBT subculture. She was familiar with this community thanks to her friend David Armstrong – also a photographer.
She also photographed the post-punk music scene and later in her career she took an interest in parenthood and youth abandonment.
She is a young German-Russian photographer member of Magnum Photos. In her short career, she’s already won some major international recognitions such as the World Press Photo and the Leica Oskar Barnak Award.
Danzinger travels the world doing photography and documentary film. His preferred subjects are the most disadvantaged people and communities. He’s published several photo books and has participated in countless exhibitions.
Arthur’s work ranges from an exhibition series exploring the spirit of Yves Saint Laurent to a book documenting the lives of women in Saudi Arabia; from Dubai through the eyes of a shipwreck survivor to the intimate moments of her family of three about to welcome a fourth member.
She’s a Magnum Photos member and was its President in 2020. She also co-founded Fishbar.
Amongst his versatile and successful career, Strand also experimented with documentary photography. He altered his camera so that there was a second fake lens. This way the subjects wouldn’t notice that they were being photographed.
He moved to Mexico City and was commissioned a documentary film called The Wave (Redes). He was one of the photographers who fought to get photography as a form of art together with Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz.
He’s a South African photographer who uses photography to reflect and critique how the “other” has been represented by the Western culture. He’s published many books and catalogues, and his work has been shown in countless exhibitions.
Richard Avedon is mostly known for his fashion photography, in the 1960’s he was documenting the civil rights workers and politicians. He later photographed mental hospitals, Vietnam War protesters, and the fall of the Berlin War.
His most famous documentary work is his series of the American West.
He is one of the most prolific war photographers in history. Much of his earlier work with the attribution Capa was actually a collaboration with Gerda Taro.
He documented WWII, the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Arab-Israeli War from 1948, and the First Indochina War.
His most iconic photos are from the book The Americans. This work features 83 of the approximately 28000 photographs he shot during the two years he travelled through the US.
His view is quite pessimistic as it shows America as a lonely place as he considered there was too much emphasis on money, and he suffered a few anti-semitic episodes. The introduction was written by Jack Kerouac.
Ballen has over 40 years of experience in documentary photography. Since the 1990s his style changed into what he called ‘documentary fiction’.
This is because his focus shifted to documenting psychodramas where the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurry.
Salgado is a world-renowned documentary photographer. His work is marked by his social and environmental engagement. Most of his projects are self-assigned and turned into books in close collaboration with his wife Lèila.
He’s a UNICEF Good Will Ambassador, and he’s restored part of the Atlantic Forest through his foundation Instituto Sierra.
Kranitz works on assignments for different publications such as National Geographic and The Atlantic. Her personal projects mainly focus on the Appalachian Region. She was the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in 202o.
McCurry is mostly known for his assignments for National Geographic magazine – especially the cover photograph “Afghan Girl.” He’s a member of Magnum Photos, and he’s been awarded and exhibited worldwide.
He’s been a controversial figure due to accusations of photo manipulation and about the way he obtained the portrait “Afghan Girl.
Meiselas is a highly-awarded photographer who is currently the president of the Magnum Foundation. Most of her works revolve around political uprisings in Latin America – including the insurrection in Nicaragua.
Her most famous photograph comes from that project and depicts a man holding a Molotov bomb and a rifle.
He was an award-winning photographer who explored different media to present his work. He did multi-screen installations, flyers, downloads, etc. He also did documentary films – the most famous was Restrepo. He was killed while covering the Lybian Civil War.
He’s a very prolific photographer with a varied and successful career. He’s won the World Press Photo nine times – amongst many other awards. His work ranges from sports to wildlife to social issues.
He’s also an artist who questions and pushes the boundaries of photography as a medium.
Her work was unknown during her lifetime. After being discovered in 2007 by three photo collectors who bought her negatives and prints from a storage space auction, she became known worldwide.
Her images mostly cover everyday life and the architecture of Chicago.
W. Eugene Smith
Smith’s work in photojournalism was mainly editorial photo essays – which made him a pioneer in this field. Aside from covering wars and the Minamata disease in Japan, he created a jazz loft where he recorded and photographed musicians.
Most of his work is published in The Big Book which he started but was finished and published after his passing.
Evans is mostly famous for his images of the Great Depression. He also documented life in Cuba under the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado (1933). There, he met Ernest Hemmingway who kept some of his prints in case they were confiscated while getting out of the country – they weren’t.
The prints he gave to Hemmingway were discovered in 2002.
Most of his work focused on crime scenes and emergency calls in Manhattan. At night, he worked on his own chasing these opportunities and later sold the images to tabloids like Daily News and major publications like Life magazine.
His later work was for the Daily Mirror in London where he did many books, lectures and photo projects.
His painterly style and use of color photography make his images more artistic than documentaries. However, his topic of interest was exactly that, documenting the mundane. That doesn’t mean his work isn’t appreciated in the art market.
In 2012, three dozen of his prints were sold at almost 6 million dollars in a Christies’ auction.