Today Christina Nichole Dickson looks at the topic of Photo Essays. Christina is a photojournalist for Revolutionary Media. She is also an instructor with the Institute in Photographic Studies. Her work may be found at Christina Nichole Photography.
In the last twenty years, video and film have become the predominant forms of modern storytelling. But before video, there was photography. And for the last one hundred years photography and storytelling went hand in hand.
Now more than ever, the power of storytelling ought to be harnessed. But telling a story with photos takes more than just a skillful photographer. An impacting photo story can only be developed by skillful photographers who understand the emotions and concepts behind ever-great story.
The form of such a story is called the photo essay.
What is a Photo Essay?
A photo essay is very simply a collection of images that are placed in a specific order to tell the progression of events, emotions, and concepts. Used by world class photojournalists such as Lauren Greenfield and James Nachtwey, and Joachim Ladefoged to name a few, the photo essay takes the same story telling techniques as a normal essay, translated into visual images.
5 Photo Essay Tips
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 a 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 researchh: 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 stage hands; 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. 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 story telling 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.
In part II of this series on Photo Essays, I will give a practical example of how I apply these techniques in a photo essay of my own.
What is the difference between a photo essay and a photo project? In “15 Creative Photography Project Ideas to Get You Shooting,” Jim Harmer presents a number of varied photography project ideas to help you find inspiration. Photo projects offer a great way to try something new and can help you get out of a rut. Suppose, though, that you’re not in a rut and don’t necessarily need inspiration but are rather looking for a project that relates to a special interest or one that you want to focus your attention on. This is where photo essays can come in.
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A photographic essay is a set or series of photographs that are intended to tell a story or evoke a series of emotions in the viewer. It allows the photographer to tell more than what is possible with a single image. Essays can range from purely photographic (no text) to photographs with captions, small texts or full text essays accompanying them. Photo essays are typically either thematic (addressing a specific topic or issue) or narrative (tells a story, usually in chronological sequence).
Following are ten photo essays ideas to consider…
Photo Essay #1: Document a Local Event. The town I live in has an annual bicycle classic. To turn this into a photo essay, one could arrive early to catch the cyclists and sponsors as they are preparing, then photograph the cyclists riding throughout the day, and finish with some shots of tents coming down and everyone heading home.
Photo Essay #2: Exhibition. Find an exhibition going on at a nearby gallery or museum. Not only photograph the pieces themselves but also those in attendance—how they are interacting with the pieces and among themselves. If you can, attend the reception so you can also capture the artist or artists whose work is on display or the curators of the exhibit.
Photo Essay #3: Transformation (Short-term). For this photo essay, find a subject that is undergoing a short-term transformation. This could include a group of men growing mustaches to celebrate Movember or a stray dog brought in to a shelter that is groomed and adopted. This sort of essay should take no longer than a month or so to tell its story.
Photo Essay #4: Transformation (Long-term). Think pregnancy, from the baby bump through to birth and maybe even the first birthday, or following a returning soldier and their transformation back to civilian life. This project should last months and could be worked around other projects being completed at the same time.
Photo Essay #5: A Day in the Life. For this essay, find someone such as a doctor, lawyer, firefighter, or police officer willing to let you follow him or her for a day, both behind the scenes and during their job. If there are times when photos cannot be taken, then you can use the text option for a photo essay and supplement your photos with some captions or short written passages.
Photo Essay #6: Raise Awareness. Find a local charity and document their daily operations, their personnel, and who or what they are helping. Give a visual sense of what they are trying to accomplish and why it is important.
Photo Essay #7: Turn a Day Out into Reportage. Find a location one would normally go to for a day out but treat this day out more as reportage—photograph behind the scenes shots, interview workers and customers. Locations could include amusement parks, nature preserves, or movie theaters.
Photo Essay #8: Give Meaning to Street Photography. Hit the streets and document the faces of the homeless or the lives of streetwalkers. Try to go deeper than the surface and look for what passersby tend to ignore.
Photo Essay #9: Neighbors. Find a neighborhood and, after photographing the homes, ask to photograph those inside the homes. You could photograph them inside their homes or just in their doorways, depending upon what you want the focus to be on—the interiors or the individuals within those interiors.
Photo Essay #10: Education. Find a school and photograph its students, teachers, and classrooms. Show the students studying and playing and the teachers teaching and on break. Photograph the computer labs and technology if it is a more affluent school or focus on what the teachers make do with if it is a less affluent school. For a longer essay, you could compare and contrast a rural school to a city school.
About the Author
Jeremiah Gilbert is a college professor, photographer, and avid traveler. His first love is landscape photography, though he also enjoys urban exploration and street photography. Through his work with models, both in studio and on location, he has been internationally published in both digital and print publications. His blog, photo portfolio, and travel tales can be found at www.jeremiahgilbert.com.