Using photography for social commentary

I’ve done photography and video for all sorts of organizations ranging from non-profits, to sports teams, to big oil. Let’s face it, they all have one goal: To make their public image as best as possible. That means biasing your photos in favour of the client, or their cause.

Let’s face it, in reality you always put some form of bias onto your work whether you realize it or not. So why not use it to make a statement?

Example 1- Energy company


At the oil company properties where I’ve worked, my job was to take pretty pictures that were well composed and clean. Even though many of the photos were for internal company use only, I never made them look dirty or bad in any way.

You can make a photo look clean or dirty using lighting and post processing techniques. You can choose a great blue sky day to highlight the best features of a property. Or you can make exhaust stacks look like they’re pumping out a lot of air pollution by shooting them in the cold winter or using back lighting, and by using grungy post processing techniques in software like Snapseed.


However if you show too much dirt, you likely won’t get hired back for second job.

Shooting an oil refinery for Greenpeace will have a different bias than shooting it for the public relations department of the oil company that hired you. I bet you can guess which photo above goes with which client.

Example 2 – Sports team

woman road cycling

I’ve been the team photographer for a couple of women’s cycling teams. Again, they wanted to show themselves in the best possible way. But they also wanted to show perseverance, action and of course winning.

cycling-track-2In a bike race that means if your team and another team are vying for a spot at the front of the pack you need to show your team pulling ahead of the pack. You also need podium photos with the team members. And, in the case of mountain biking, you need some mud!

Try making a commentary using photos only.

Think about the style of photos you’ll use. This will also influence your viewers. For example, you can use a documentary style (less biased), editorial style (more biased), or a more commercial style of photography.

Here are some possible themes you can start to think about.

  • Poverty
  • Affluence
  • Environmental cause

Example of an editorial style social commentary

The gallery below was created on my Earth Day photo walk. I started off my walk looking for crocuses, and ended up finding a lot of garbage as well. What I thought was going to be a pure documentary of spring emerging on the prairie, ended up being an editorial comment on the contradiction of the garbage with the beauty in the natural landscape.

Technical notes: All the photos were shot as square format with my Lumix LX5 point and shoot camera. They were edited using Snapseed with the Drama filter on each, and I also added a frame.

What kinds of things are you passionate about?

Maybe it’s time to put your photography skills to use, and shoot for a cause. You never know, it may turn into some paid work too, because all non-profit organizations are in need of good images to promote their cause.

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