The first use of the term ‘fiction’ to distinguish it from ‘non-fiction’ seems to be in the 1800s, according to casual Web searching and wikipedia poking around. Turning to the sorts of photos selected by editors in their daily showcase of diverse excellence at http://www.flickr.com/explore there seem to be most fictional work, in the sense that a composition has been fabricated on site, in the camera settings/decisions, or post-processed with software to manipulate the image in order to delight the eye or possibly to make manifest the creator’s vision, or even magnifying what the person found in their mind’s eye so that viewers can also perceive the play of light, color or lines in a way similar to the maker’s view.
And so the photographer can focalize the viewers onto a chosen scene by choice of lens, shutter speed, filters and framing to remove extraneous subjects. The result, like good literature, can elevate the person who is engaging with the work, or possibly reveal a new truth, relationship or pattern. At the surface level it can delight the eye or tickle the senses and pool of memories from other places and times. But by contrast, what does “non-fiction” photography look like?
Perhaps by minimizing the hand of the photographer, or at least restricting the artful exercise of technical skills to matters that more faithfully capture the scene; not making it into something from the photographer’s fancy, but instead enhancing the light or texture to overcome the difficulty of a particular lens and the relatively narrower dynamic range available to film or sensor, compared to the human eye. Such a minimalist intrusion into the subject by means of carefully knowing the characteristics of a given lens+body combination can only make the viewer’s experience of the scene more accurate visually and perhaps also emotionally so that a bit of the cultural meaning or social moment is translatable. Instead of a visual composition there is human significance and consequence that can be conveyed; perhaps even to shed light or insight into the subject, or by reflection, or about the viewer himself or herself!
Therefore, to all those who desire to hone their “non-fiction” photo (essay series, or single frame) work, there are a few things to pay attention to: lens should be similar to the perspective of human eyes (expressed in full-frame digital or 35mm film: 35 to 65 mm lens), field of view of human eye should be approximated or suggested in part (by stitching 4 frames taken in portrait orientation or 3 taken in landscape orientation), shutter should freeze the motion instead of blurring it, special effects features on cameras should be avoided, anything that draws attention to the image-making instead of the subject should be minimized. There is drama enough in the social and natural world, so apart from enhancements and corrections that give a more transparent experience to the viewer, little manipulation or heavy editing should be used in order to create and convey a “non-fiction” photographic work.