On Blurry Lines: Inventing Documercial Photography

By Patrick La Roque
April 24, 2020 at 9:35 am  •  Posted in In the Magazine, Inspiration by

© Patrick La Roque


“Advertising and commercial are selling something. Editorial is telling something.”
—Zack Arias, editorial and commercial photographer

The above quote is the simplest, clearest explanation of photography genres I’ve ever come across: you’re either telling or selling. Easy enough. But what happens when the two intersect? In recent years, the lines have become increasingly blurred, as brands strive to connect and find new ways of making themselves more approachable and human, while also having to contend with the endless need for fresh content brought on by social media.

Commercial photography—like everything else in society—has always been subject to fashion trends. Leaf through an issue of any old magazine, and this is immediately obvious. From the instantly recognizable doe-eyed effervescence of Swinging London in the 60s to the glossy, big-haired and colour-gelled ads of the 80s, every era has its own style, attitude and approach that ends up shaping our impression of it in hindsight.

If there’s one word that immediately comes to mind when trying to describe the current marketing landscape across industries, it’s storytelling. It’s hard to even keep track of the number of articles published on this subject (and yes, guilty as charged). Today, every brand needs a story to tell: shoes, bikes, clothes, cars…the product can be anything. What matters is communicating an experience through some form of narrative, turning brands themselves into subjects in their own right and getting eyeballs in the process. And this trend is increasingly having an impact on the way agencies and companies frame their visual strategies. Ours is fast becoming the era of documercial photography.

Right, so…truth be told, “documercial” isn’t an actual ord. In fact, an online search for “ documercial photography” will yield very few results, usually offering commercial photography as a replacement. But even if vocabularies have yet to be updated, the reality exists. Following a sea change in how we interact with one another, documentary photography aimed at commercial purposes is a growing trend in the industry. Until recently, all photography-based advertising (as in still images) targeted what was essentially a single platform: print. This could take on different forms, of course—billboards, magazines, etc.—but the core concept remained the same, as did the way we consumed these images.

But the advent of citizen journalism, the ubiquitous smartphone camera, and the explosion of image sharing—all these unrehearsed, chaotic eyes—combined to contribute to the general rise of social media and its insatiable hunger for content. This has resulted in both a taste for more spontaneous, direct styles of photography and a need for projects that expand beyond the slick, one-off image. Now the goal is to engage followers on an almost daily basis, building momentum and creating long-term relationships.

Print budgets are increasingly shifting to platforms like Instagram or Snapchat, where traditional advertising concepts need to be reassessed for a very different type of interaction. Long form narratives are returning as well, finding growing audiences on platforms such as Medium, the new darling of online publishing.

Storytelling is a fundamental part of how we communicate, and the documercial trend channels this reality. In a society that can at times feel anonymous and sterile, stories help forge emotional ties, fostering empathy and even intimacy. They let us in. For most brands, this is nothing short of a holy grail. For photographers, however, it raises important ethical questions.

© Patrick La Roque

As someone profoundly interested in the essay form, I can’t deny the opportunities this trend provides. But how do we reconcile the very idea of documentary work with a brand’s marketing agenda? How do we deal with all those ulterior commercial motives while remaining credible? It’s a crucial question. Personally, as clichéd as it may sound, I believe the answer lies in honesty. Even if the ultimate goal is to sell, truth still needs to be at the core of this type of work. That’s why there’s a distinction to be made between simply applying documentary aesthetics to a shoot—natural light, seemingly candid situations—and following a strict documentary approach.

And that’s where we can make a difference: by pushing methods that offer more than appearances or façades. Companies looking to pursue these projects should be willing to open themselves up—not just go through the motions or strike the appropriate pose. The human element and primary message of a story should be sincere, based on a real desire to share a journey with all of its ups and downs…because transparency can be extremely powerful. We all relate to imperfection; we all understand trial and error as part of a common experience. As consumers, if we share in the struggles, chances are we’ll also share in the victories. As photographers, this means that the driving force behind these assignments should be telling the story, just as with any other documentary subject. If we do our job right, selling will be the by-product. Everyone wins.

Companies and brands are living organisms. Whether they’re start-ups, family businesses or established names, they all go through transitions, growing pains, successes and failures. They’re filled with people working behind the scenes in high-rise offices or warehouses. Some are superstars and others toil in the background, but all are pieces of the same puzzle. We can be cynical and see documercial work as a form of deception—just another long con on the road to profit. And the truth is, it certainly can be. But if done right, I believe it’s also an opportunity to break down the barriers and bring humanity back into the equation. It’s a chance to pull back the curtain and reveal the wizards behind the products.

As with any photographic undertaking, it pays to identify the goals, be curious and invest in the project. Here are some tips for doing a documercial shoot.

This is documentary work, and it should be treated as such. Knowing your subject beforehand and discussing all aspects of the project with the client will help define the appropriate approach and angle.

Most people tend to be shy in front of a camera so have a chat and ease in slowly. Inform them you’ll be taking candid pictures along the way, but keep the conversation flowing as you work. And that smartphone in your pocket? It’s also a very useful recording device. Don’t just trust your memory.

It can be tempting, but fake is fake, and it always comes out in the end. Direction is fine in the case of editorial portraits, but the entire premise of this type of work is to keep things real as much as possible.

There are no dull subjects when we look beneath the surface. Curiosity—in any situation—is always our ally.

Chances are a certain visual direction will be part of the brief as well, depending on the campaign. Instagram is no longer confined to a square format, but this could still be preferred. The website Medium makes use of very large full-bleed images, which could be used for further impact. Keeping these formats in mind is important when the objective is to blend into the flow of a specific platform.

This article was originally published in the April/May 2017 issue of Photo Life, available for free to subscribers in the digital archives.

© Patrick La Roque