Massachusetts Institute of Technology Documentary Photography and Photojournalism: Still Images of a World in Motion. 


While doing research on photography classes at institutes of higher learning I ran across a link to MIT's (Massachusettes Institute of Technology) open course ware on photography. A free online course of photography specifically "Documentary Photography and Photojournalism: Still Images of a World in Motion". Free? Really, a free class from MIT? Yes it is. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. The course is dated, 2006 - 2009 or so, but are photography images dated? The course offers several lengthly video's with outstanding guest photographers showcasing their work in documentary photography and photojournalism. Along with the video's they list required reading and suggested reading materials of which I will post here. In addition there are "assignment details" for specific excercises. I have not tried these excercises yet but just reading about them gets my artistic juices flowing. The assignments are listed at the bottom. has all of these books available from a few dollars to over $100 for specific ones. I suggest you read all of the reviews before investing. 


Required reading and suggested reading. The first five listed are required text books.


 Coles, Robert. Doing Documentary Work. New York, NY: Oxford Press, 1998. ISBN: 9780195124958. [Preview in Google Books.]
The compilation of a series of lectures the Harvard psychiatrist and documentarian gave at the New York Public Library.


 Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York, NY: Picador USA, 2001. ISBN: 9780312420093. [Preview in Google Books.]
This is a seminal work about photography, and if you are going to photograph, you must be (painfully) familiar with it.


 Ang, Tom. Fundamentals of Photography: The Essential Handbook for Both Digital and Film Cameras. New York, NY: Knopf, 2008. ISBN: 9780375711572.
A truly excellent "how-to" book that will serve as your technical text.


 Krause, Jim. Photo Idea Index. New York, NY: How, 2009. ISBN: 9781600610431.
As the cover blurb boasts, "not your typical 'how to' book." This really is a book crammed full of ideas intended to expand your way of seeing, and shooting, from how to capture action, to thoughts about visual hierarchy and using space in your photos.


 Boot, Chris. Magnum Stories. New York, NY: Phaidon Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780714842455.
This is a massive collection of work by 61 past and present members of Magnum, the world's premiere photo agency/collective.


Highly Recommended Textbooks but not Required


 Phaidon, eds. The Photo Book. Boston, MA: Phaidon Press, 1997. ISBN: 9780714836348.
This overview in photos of the history of photography is a must-own.


 Deveney, Kaylynn, and Hastings, Albert. The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007. ISBN: 9781568987040.
If this book doesn't inspire you — sell your camera. It is a little jewel, a successful marriage of art photography and pure documentary photography, and demonstrates how the simplest of ideas can produce a sublime project.


 Hintlian, Michael. Digging. Beverly, MA: Commonwealth Editions, 2004. ISBN: 9781889833927.
The Big Dig as you have never seen it or thought of it.


Any and all the books of Eugene Richards, arguably the greatest living American documentary photographer. These books include Dorchester Days; The Fat Baby; The Knife and Gun Club; Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue; and Americans We.


 Frank, Robert. The Americans. Zurich, Switzerland: Scalo Publishers, 1998. ISBN: 9783931141806.
The seminal work by a Swiss photographer who took a road trip across the U.S. in the late 1950s.


 Trachtenberg, Alan. Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003. ISBN: 9780393325126.
Selections from the seminal work by the inventor of the modern photo story — if you are not inspired by this, sell your camera.


 Page, Tim, and Horst Faas. Requiem: By The Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina. New York, NY: Vintage/Ebury (Random House), 1997. ISBN: 9780224050586.
This is a truly magnificent collection of combat photographs by, as the title makes clear, photographers who did not survive the combat they were covering.


 Bowman, Robin. It's Complicated: The American Teenager. Brooklyn, NY: Umbrage Editions, 2007. ISBN: 9781884167690.
A young photographer took a Polaroid camera, created a questionnaire, and set off across the country to create portraits of teenagers and to ask them to answer her list of questions.


 Griffiths, Philip Jones. Vietnam Inc. London, UK: Phaidon Press, 2006. ISBN: 9780714846033.
Magnum photographer as flat-out advocate. A powerful, classic photobook.


 Mark, Mary Ellen. Exposure. London, UK: Phaidon Press, 2006. ISBN: 9780714846262.
A career retrospective by an outstanding documentary photographer and teacher.


Anything by Bruce Davidson. This includes East 100th Street, England/Scotland 1960, Circus, Time of Change, and anything else you can find.


 Horenstein, Henry. Close Relations. Brooklyn, NY: powerhouse Books, 2007. ISBN: 9781576873274.
I'm not sure why I am so drawn to this book of photos by Horenstein, a long-time faculty member at RISD. The book is a collection of images Horenstein made of friends in Cambridge, and family members in Newton, when he himself was a student in the early 1970s. It's captivating — and it has an introduction by one of the "Car Talk" guys.


 Galassi, Peter. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image and the World: A Retrospective. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2006. ISBN: 9780500286425.
This is the ultimate collection by the man who 'invented' 35 mm photography, helped found the great photo agency/collective Magnum, and who coined the term, "decisive moment."


 Nachtweys, James. Inferno. London, UK: Phaidon Press, 1999. ISBN: 9780714838151.
An overwhelming collection of anti-war photographs of combat and its ultimate results. A book that will weigh as heavily on your conscience as it will on your lap.



Here is a list of the excercises required for the graduate and or undergraduate photography course at MIT. Have fun.


Assignment Details (I believe you have to view the DVD for this assignment, available at


In one page react to Nachtwey and his work — Do you believe him? Can he accomplishing anything? Do you believe the documentary presents an honest picture of the photographer? Anything else you want to tell me.



"Objectivity — Myth, Reality, or Ultimate Goal" — 600-700 words. Consider Cole's view of objectivity and the biases of the documentarian, and explain whether a documentary photographer can — or should — be objective, and what part objectivity, or lack of it, plays in the value of the photographers work.


Photo-A-Week (PAW)

Each week you will observe the world around you, looking for stories that can be captured in a single still image. And each week you will bring to class a single image that tells a story, a story obvious to anyone seeing the image. There will be specific focus — forgive me — to some of the assignments.



In which you will exchange your camera for a notebook, wander about, and return with detailed descriptions of the half-dozen or so images you would have shot if you'd only had your camera with you. And when I say "detailed," I mean that I not only want you to record details of the scene in front of you, I want to know why you think the scene is worth the expenditure of a single frame of film, or even of a single pixel. I want to know whyyou think this particular scene, object, or person is worth the effort required to push the shutter release; what makes this a photograph worth making? If nothing else, you should come away from this exercise having learned that you should never leave the house without some sort of camera over your shoulder, or in your pocket.



You will have spent the past week shooting photographs - from within 15 feet of your subjects and from their fronts - that tell stories. You will submit the one best photo from the week. You should not have to explain the photo to us. If we can't look at the image and get it, the photo has failed. Remember, the only things a still photograph brings to a viewer are those things that are visible - what you heard, felt, thought, smelled, or cared about when you took the photo are meaningless if they are not conveyed by the light captured in a fraction of a second when your shutter is open.



Same as PAW 1 assignment.


This exercise is designed to give you a sense of what it is like to be a photographic subject over a relatively long period of time. You will all pair off, and as pairs will spend a minimum of 12 hours together. For half that time, one of you will be the photographer and one will be the subject; for the other half you will switch roles. The subject gets to decide what he or she wants to spend the time doing — anything from hanging out in your jammies doing problem sets and catching up on Facebook, to hiking the Freedom Trail, to racing go-carts — whatever. The photographer's job will be to document the subject's "day," and to select and sequence the 12 photos that best tell the story of that day. Good luck.


(An exercise designed by Eugene Richards, arguably the greatest living American documentary photographer.) For this assignment you will pick a subject to shoot the equivalent of one roll of film of portraits — 30 to 40 images. You will decide where you want to take these photos, and once you and your subject are initially positioned, your subject may not move — if he or she is sitting, that's what they will do throughout the sessions; if they start out standing, they will remain standing — in the same spot. And sitting, that's what they will do throughout the sessions; if they start out standing, they will remain standing — in the same spot. And you may not move your feet once you start shooting — you may lean, crouch, stretch, hold the camera high or low; but you must remain in the same place. And you may use only a single focal length lens, or single focal length on a zoom lens.



Robert Capa, one of the founders of Magnum Photos and the first great modern war photographer, is alleged to have once said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." (He also is said to have remarked, "F 8 and be there," but more about that later.) This week you will get in your subjects faces - you will shoot your PAWs from within six feet of the front of your subjects. Yes, I know this will make you uncomfortable. Yes, I know this is difficult. Yes, it is challenging. But if I may coin a phrase - Just do it!

The Real "Decisive Moment"

Despite what you may previously read or been taught, is not the instant at which you release the shutter; it is that instant in which you see the possibilities in a scene or situation and commit to working it until you have extracted all its photographic promise.

For this assignment you will chose a single lens, or will tape your zoom at a single focal length that will require you to work reasonably close to your subject — 50 mm or shorter. You will then go to somewhere and find a scene or situation and will work it from every conceivable angle, using your frame in every way imaginable. You are expected to make a minimum of 72 exposures — on this assignment. If you think this is an easy assignment, you are not taking it seriously enough.


Space Ship

(This exercise was originally conceived by Charles Harbutt for use in his workshops. I have made some modifications in it.)

This assignment is intended to test your imagination, and your ability to capture your ideas as images.

Assume for a moment that you are going to be leaving earth on a spaceship, never to return. There will not be any form of entertainment or decoration on the ship. You will not have any mirrors, films, works of art, etc. You will be eating processed food and drinking filtered urine. You may, however, bring 10 photographs with you.

In a 24 hours period, without consulting any of your classmates, make 10 photographic images that will sustain you on your voyage. We are not looking for great art; we are looking for personally meaningful images. Do you want pictures of your dog? Your mother? Or the manhole cover outside your apartment? It's up to you.

Each of you will be required to plan execute a documentary photo project. You may select your own subject — subject to my approval, but I would urge that you not take on anything too grandiose. I would suggest that you begin looking for a subject close to home — but that is not part of your personal life, consider, for instance:

  • Life on a dorm floor
  • Life on a sheep farm;
  • A day-week-month in a local laundromat;
  • The work of a scientist, or lab;
  • The life of an unseen worker.

On the other hand, you may push the envelope as far as you dare and are capable of pushing it — If you can gain access to a group of people, or an organization, whose lives or functioning we normally never see, go for it. But remember, to paraphrase Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas.


Madison Assignment

Writing assignment — Remember "Madison?" Write a 600-1000 word short story based on what you think, or want to imagine, is going on in the photo. Your story may start or end with the scene in the photo; it may allude to the photo.

Madison: Remember "Madison?" Go back and look at this photo by Texas photographer Bill Clough. What do you see? No, look carefully at this photo. Consider the composition, the lighting, the exposure, the use of the frame. Now forget those things. Focus instead on what you see in front of you. Who is the girl? The man? Where are they? Why are they there? What are they doing? Do they know each other? Where did they come from? Where are they going? What do you see?

Thought about it? Okay, now write the first 800 words of a short story using the photo as your subject, or your taking off point. Your story doesn't have to be about the photo, but it must be connected somehow to the photo.


Magnum Stories Presentations

Each Week starting with week three — You will each select a photographer whose work is included in Magnum Stories and prepare a 10-minute presentation on that photographer for your fellow students. If there are conflicts over presentation dates and photographers, they will be settled by drawing lots.


Magnum stories (due Week #2)

Each member of the class will give a 10 minute presentation some time during the semester on one of the photographers whose work is included inMagnum Stories. By the time you come to the second class be prepared with your first, second, and third choice of photographer, and, if you have a preference, the date when you'd like to present.


Magnum stories (due Week #3)

First Magnum stories presentations: You know who you are.


Magnum stories (due Week #4)

You better know who you are.


Magnum stories (due Week #5)
I know who you are. So you'd better too.


Magnum stories (due Week #6)
And the beat goes on.


Magnum stories (due 1 week after Week #6)
You'd better know who you are.


Magnum stories (due Week #8)
I hope we still remember who you are.


Magnum stories (due Week #9)
Is this your week?


Magnum stories (due 1 week after Week #9)
If you have not yet presented, you are now on deck.

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