Looking at photojournalism, war photography and work recording our culture, Franklin identifies some of its driving impulses: curiosity, outrage, reform and ritual; the search for evidence, for beauty, for therapy; and the immortalization of memory.

As our understanding of 'documentary' continues to expand, Franklin considers photographic staging - where, perhaps, the future of the genre may lie: in search of truth over fact.

This book traces what I shall call the documentary impulse. Here I mean the passion to record, with fidelity, the moments we experience and wish to preserve, the things we witness and might want to reform; or simply the people, places or things we find remarkable... Photography (and journalism) practised respectfully has the power to educate us all towards a greater understanding and empathy towards others.
— Stuart Franklin