The Importance of Still Life for Documentary Photography

When I am working on a blueprint of a documentary project, most of my attention is focused on unpacking what drew me initially to it. Usually, a list of locations and themes that I’ll visit to find out the direction that the story will take.

My projects focus on people and the important thing for me is to notice the moments that occur within the story’s main beats. Emotion, gesture, behavior, interaction, action, and combinations of these will make up the soul of a story.

I’ll search for people and communities that I would like to be friends with. I will also research customs and traditions I may need to know in order to make the best decisions. Secondary research is effective to a point but I’ll learn the most via primary research when I’m actually spending my time in the field untangling the narrative and making the photographs and my notes. This is an idea I’ve written about previously.

Around this life-centered heart of the story, I will also look for images of the location itself, and ambiance in order to situate and contextualize, to frame a relationship with the people in the story. These images would have looked more street-style than specific and narrower when I first started. Still life was often associated with detailed, macro images. Over time, I realized that I wasn’t capturing a balanced of elements, images with minimal detail but still showing the scene, not technical aspects but details within the larger context.

When some refer to detail in a photograph they may mean that the lens has rendered with a very fine stroke, but I don’t think an image with detail is the same as an image of detail. I happily use fine or course-grained films for these kinds of images and as long as the result is clear the actual amount of detail isn’t important as long as the detail itself is clear.

Overlooking these still-life scenes that do not contain heavy human/animal involvement meant those early photo essays were lacking something that my current efforts tangibly have. These photos can add polish and depth to a story if they are used in the right order. I especially like the images that serve to anthropomorphize, adding emotion and empathy in the stillness of left-behind pieces, a “thumbprint” of sorts of those people and communities, or relating to the narrative.

These photographs work really well as transitional elements, interspersed between the powerful main images of a story — the concrete between bricks, holding the structure together. I can present a character and then develop that character before expanding on their story, which means the payoff for the audience is greater, they have a connection beyond a portrait and some words with this person. The same for a location, I can photograph a wider scene, then hone in on some details before moving on to my next main point.

For example, in this sequence from my book D.C. Exclusion Zone I use a full page to introduce the idea of the Shadow Representative using an image where only his flag pin is in focus on his lapel. The opposite page contains a brief write-up and an image showing the Representative getting ready for his meeting. This is from someone looking outside of the office.

I could have left it at just that sequence – the Representative, prep for the meeting, and the meeting itself, but instead I included below the meeting shot a small selection of still life from inside the office; hands, papers, objects on the desk which contextualize the character of the representative and elaborate on the moment without needing to show anything more than a few essentials. These are not about introducing new information or adding to what is already there.

The next page turn book-ends this sequence and leads into the next, with a portrait of intense concentration juxtaposed with the helmet of a national guardsman which is the introduction for the next section of the book.

In this way, I have introduced a character and shown him in a few moments about his day, but also manage to explore via the tightly cropped still life images around his desk, giving more information to my reader beyond words, which do not serve to caption the images but rather offer unique information themselves. These ideas combine to create a mosaic that is made from smaller pieces. If the images were simply a portrait and then an image in a meeting there would not be the same depth, and it would feel unsatisfying and incomplete.

It can be confusing to see two beautiful images at once. A peaceful still-life can help cut through drama and balance emotions. Each image can hit its own pace with an intermission. This is almost music. Two crescendos without any breaks can make them discordant. Simpler images can enhance each other’s experience.

My projects will live their best life in print, as sequenced stories, and with this in mind, I am able to work in a way that has this medium as my end goal, not individual photographs. It is possible to use the downtime I have to find small but important pieces that can be added to a puzzle when working in an area. This allows me to photograph without worrying about what the image could be used for. It’s also a way for me to be more free and less restricted.

The best time to find an idea is when you don’t need it.

P.S. I recently collaborated with Sagar Kharecha to document the laying of a Foundation Stone that will rest under the foundation of the extension to Milton Keynes Neath Hill Murugan Temple. To tie together the story, we took stills within the space while photographing the ceremony. You can find copies of our zine, which contains this story, here while stocks last.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.