A photo essay is a set or series of photographs that are intended to tell a story or evoke a series of emotions in the viewer. Photo essays range from purely photographic works to photographs with captions or small notes to full-text essays with a few or many accompanying photographs. Photo essays can be sequential in nature, intended to be viewed in a particular order, or they may consist of nonordered photographs which may be viewed all at once or in an order chosen by the viewer. All photo essays are collections of photographs, but not all collections of photographs are photo essays.
Photo essays often address a certain issue or attempt to capture the character of places and events. A photo essay can take a number of forms, including:
- An article in a publication, sometimes a full page or a two-page spread. Newspapers and news magazines often have multi-page photo essays about significant events, both good and bad, such as a sports championship or a national disaster.
- A book or other complete publication.
- A web page or portion of a web site.
- A single montage or collage of photographic images, with text or other additions, intended to be viewed both as a whole and as individual photographs. Such a work may also fall in the category of mixed media.
- An art show which is staged at a particular time and location. Some such shows also fall in the category of installation art.
- A slide show or similar presentation, possibly with spoken text, could be delivered on slides, on DVD, or on a web site.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words and cameras have allowed us to witness for ourselves important, emotional, tragic, and timeless moments in history. The most effective photographs help us experience these moments as if we were right there. Photojournalists understand the powerful effects that images can have on people. Throughout history, they have documented everything from the triumph and tragedy of war to the problem of homelessness to life in other countries. While print journalists rely on words to tell the facts of a story, photojournalists tell stories in what are known as photo essays—stories primarily told through pictures, with captions and text to supplement the visuals.
“We See a Great Deal of the World” Margaret Bourke-White, a photographer famous for taking pictures of ordinary people during the Great Depression, said the following about the role of photojournalists: “We see a great deal of the world. Our obligation is to pass it on to others.” You can learn a great deal about the world through these “passed on” stories, but it’s important to view them with a critical eye. Although cameras can be objective, the photographers using them bring their own biases, viewpoints, and opinions to their work. Sometimes photojournalists choose images that are intended to sway your emotions or may cause you to feel a certain way about an issue or event.
Essentially, when you are looking at a photo, you are seeing what the photographer wants you to see: the world through his or her eyes. Staging Reality Alexander Gardner was a photojournalist who documented the Civil War. Gardner took some very dramatic photos showing dead Confederate soldiers. Since then, a researcher has concluded that Gardner staged some of his photos to make them more dramatic and to appeal to his audience.
A photo essay isn’t simply for photojournalists however. Every human being is drawn to stories. Whether you are an amateur or a professional, the photo essay is brilliant way to bring your images to life and touch your family, friends, and coworkers.
1. Find a topic:.
Photo essays are most dynamic when you as the photographer care about the subject. Whether you choose to document the first month of a newborn in the family, the process of a school drama production, or even a birthday party, make your topic something in which you find interest.
2. Do your research:
If you document a newborn’s first month, spend time with the family. Discover who the parents are, what culture they are from, whether they are upper or lower class. If you cover the process of a school’s drama production, talk with the teachers, actors and stagehands; investigate the general interest of the student body; find out how they are financing the production and keeping costs down. If you photograph a birthday party, check out the theme, the decorations they plan on using, what the birthday kid hopes to get for his or her gifts. All of these factors will help you in planning out the type of shots you set up for your story.
3. Find the “real story”
After your research, you can determine the angle you want to take your story. Is the newborn the first son of a wealthy family on whom the family legacy will continue? Or does the baby have a rare heart condition? Is the drama production an effort to bring the student body together? Or is it featuring a child star? Is the birthday party for an adolescent turning 13, or the last birthday of a dying cancer patient? Though each story idea is the same, the main factors of each story create an incredibly unique story.
4. Dynamic Story
Every dynamic story is built on a set of core values and emotions that touch the heart of its audience. Anger, Joy, Fear, Hurt, Excitement. The best way you can connect your photo essay with its audience is to draw out the emotions within the story and utilize them in your shots. This does not mean that you manipulate your audience’s emotions. You merely use emotion as a connecting point.
5. Plan your shots
Whether you decide to sit down and extensively visualize each shot of the story, or simply walk through the venue in your mind, you will want to think about the type of shots that will work best to tell your story. I recommend beginners first start out by creating a “shot list” for the story. Each shot will work like a sentence in a one-paragraph story. Typically, you can start with 10 shots. Each shot must emphasize a different concept or emotion that can be woven together with the other images for the final draft of the story.
Remember that storytelling takes practice. You don’t have to be an incredible writer to pull off a powerful photo essay. All you need is a bit of photographic technique, some creativity, and a lot of heart. And once you begin taking pictures in stories, your images will never be the same.