How to write a good photo essay
5 Tips for Creating a Photo Essay with a Purpose
As a photographer, you are a storyteller. The nouns are your subject matter; the verbs are the color and contrast that keep the story moving. A cast of characters all working together to get your point across. Instead of proper grammar, you ensure proper exposure. Instead of spelling errors, you watch for tack-sharp focus. For those times when the story is especially important and meaningful, or for when one image doesn’t say it all, there is the photographic essay. With blogging and social media, photo essays are more popular than ever: humorous or emotionally relevant, sparking debate or encouraging compassion, each with a story to tell.
I’ve mentioned before that taking on a photo project is one of my favorite ways to reignite my love for photography, but beyond that, it’s a great way to get your message across and have your work seen by a larger group. A photo essay is intriguing; it’s something to talk about after people hear that you’re a photographer and want to know about the glitz and glamour of it all. It’s the perfect thing to tell them after you’re done going on and on about all of the red carpets, the celebrities, the fame, and the fortune. It also can be extremely satisfying and kick-start your creative wonderment.
By definition, a photographic essay is a set or series of photographs intended to tell a story or evoke emotions. It can be only images, images with captions, or images with full text. In short, it can be almost anything you want it to be. Which is where I struggle most–when the options are limitless. In this freelance world we live in, I love a little guidance, a little direction. Ideally, someone to tell me exactly what they want and promise to be thrilled with whatever I produce, for my fragile artist ego can’t take any less. While I continue my quest for that, I offer you these 5 tips for creating your own, completely without bounds, photographic essay:
1) Let it evolve on its own
Each time I’ve had a very specific concept in mind before I started shooting, it’s never been the end result. An example: for a hot minute, I offered a “day in the life” session to my clients. I was photographing so many of the same clients year after year that I wanted to be able to offer them a different spin on the portrait sessions I was doing for them. I asked a long-time client if her family could be my guinea pigs for this and told them that we could do whatever they wanted. We went out for ice cream, had a mini dance party in their living room, and I photographed a tooth that had been lost that very morning. Then, very last, I photographed the two young daughters with notes they had written, which to be honest, I’m not even sure how they had come about. I rushed home after the session and edited those last note pictures first just because they were so different from what I usually shoot, and posted them on my personal Facebook page the heading Notes Girls Write.
Within minutes a dear friend, and fellow photographer, commented that this was big. Bigger than just the two pictures. She and I would spend the next year working on a photo essay that became a blog, that in turn became a book entitled Notes Girls Write. We photographed hundreds of women of all ages with their notes, each one later expressing having their portrait taken with their own words was an extremely powerful moment for them. Beyond my beautiful children, the fact that I can make a bed with hospital corners like no one’s business, and the award I won in the 4th grade for “Most Patient”, Notes Girls Write is one of my proudest accomplishments. It evolved on its own, starting from a few similar photographs that struck a cord in viewers and becoming a large and powerful project, one of the biggest markers in my career so far.
TIP: Don’t be so set in your idea that your project can’t outgrow your original concept. Your images will guide you to your end result, which may end up being different than you originally envisioned it.
2) If you think there’s something there, there’s likely something there
For the last year I have been a “foster mom” with a dog rescue group. Volunteers transport dogs that would otherwise be put down from overpopulated shelters, or seized from terrible situations, to my area, where dog adoption rates are much higher. These dogs live in foster homes while they receive medical care and basic training so that they can be adopted out to loving homes. It’s incredibly rewarding. Especially when I had hardwood floors.
I knew from the first time I met the transport van I wanted to document what it looked like: a van full of dogs that just narrowly escaped death arriving to temporary homes where they will experience a level of love and care which they’ve likely never known. I tear-up every time I see it. I am also put to work every time I am there, so taking photos while holding onto a 100 pound German Shepard is tough. It’s going to take me several trips to have enough images to do anything with, but that’s fine. I have no idea what I will be doing with these photos. I know they will find a home somewhere: maybe with the rescue group to raise awareness, or to help bring in volunteers, or maybe they will do nothing more than document my own story with volunteering, or perhaps something more. I’m not sure yet, but the point is that I have the images, ready for their time, whenever that is.
TIP: If you think there is something to it, there likely is. Even if it’s just a personal passion project. Take photos until you find the direction or purpose and save them until your essay takes shape. You may not end up using all, or any of the images, but in continuing to take photographs, your project will be defined.
3) Shoot every single thing
I’m the “World’s Worst Over-Shooter”. Need one image? Let me take a hundred so we know we have it. Luckily for my bad habit, the photographic essay needs over shooting. Whether you know what your plan is, or have no idea want your end result will look like, the more coverage you have, the better. This is one of the few times I push my luck and ask my subjects to work for me until they never want to see me again (I only photograph people though, so if you are photographing mountains or something, you have the added advantage of not pushing people until they cry or yell). Don’t be shy. Shoot everything you know you don’t need, just in case you need it. Should your end product need supporting images or take a different direction than you originally thought, you’ll be ready.
Take advantage of digital (if that’s how you shoot) and fill a memory card. You may end up trashing everything, or you may not. I had no idea that my Notes Girls Write project would span for as long as it did, but because I didn’t turn down anyone who was interested in the very beginning I ended up with some shots that told complete stories and expanded on the original concept.
TIP: Think big. If you are shooting an essay where mountains are your subject matter, see the mountain in pieces and photograph the surrounding trees, rocks, and whatever else. This will save you having to return to the beginning of the project for supporting shots, or having to reshoot if your essay takes a different turn than you planned.
4) Ask for help with image selection
I struggle with this one–I let my personal feelings get involved. Throughout our Notes Girls Write project I was constantly picking images based on my personal feelings–the subjects that I had connected with more, and the girls that I knew were most interested in the project. This is where it is so helpful to have someone else help. Someone who has no personal feelings towards the images and will help you pick based only on the strength of the image and not your own feelings. Even if people were not involved as subjects, you tend to have personal feelings toward images that the general public may not see the power behind.
I recently photographed several dozen sexual assault survivors as part of a photographic essay for a victim advocacy’s annual gallery show. This event is meant to put faces on the survivors and raise awareness, and has been a large local event for years. I was thrilled to be selected to be the exclusive photographer, though this was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever taken on. The photo sessions themselves, whether five minutes or 30, were extremely emotional for the survivors and in the time I spent with them, I often learned a lot about their journey and experience. This made it difficult for me to pick which final images would be used for the show, based only on the power of the image and not my personal feelings. In the end several select friends helped me narrow each survivor’s images down, and the subjects themselves selected which would be the final image used, as ultimately this is their story.
TIP: All creative work is personal, and looking at photographs we take ourselves is incredibly hard to do with clear eyes. We see the mistakes, the personal feelings, the shot that could have been better. It’s impossible to always set these aside so when working on a project that is incredibly important to you, or large in scale. Have others help you decide what images to use for your final pieces. Bring in people who are interested in photography and people that aren’t. People that know about your subject matter and people that don’t understand it at all. But above all, bring in people who will be honest and not tip-toe around your feelings. Lastly, also bring a thick skin.
5) Tell your story, in fact shout it from the rooftops if you can
Maybe your original idea for your photographic essay was to post it on your blog. Awesome, nothing wrong with that, but are you sure it can’t be more? Shop it around, who can it help? Does this benefit a group, an organization, or a person? Could it inspire people? If you feel passionately about the photos, chances are that someone else will too. Your photographic eye doesn’t stop when your shooting is done. If you felt compelled to take the time to create a photographic essay, there are likely “readers” for your story.
TIP: This isn’t the time to be humble. Taking on a photo essay is a large endeavour. While there’s nothing wrong with having it be something you only did for your own personal growth, showing it around can be helpful both in experience and longterm benefit. Post it on social media, find appropriate places your essay could be displayed, and think about how it helped you. Every single photo essay I have done has led to an outstanding connection, or more work, and there is nothing wrong with getting those things along with the personal gain of accomplishing something you’re proud of.
The ideas are truly for a photographic essay are limitless. Truly.
Want a few more ideas for projects, try these?
Have you ever done a photographic essay? What is your experience? Share with in the comments if you have, or have considered it. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?
How To Create a Meaningful Photography Essay In 5 Steps
The storytelling nature of photography no secret. It has been used for a century to narrate stories in a very peculiar and effective way. Narrative photographic projects have great power, and regardless of the level of experience and maturity of the photographer, they are very appealing. Photographic essays invite us to research a topic or a theme in depth. Documentary photography is perhaps one of the closest things to “narrative” as we traditionally know it. Even though times have changed, and photography has been open to more independent photographers who don’t have the same resource bonanza as the editorial or journalistic photographers of previous decades, this new democracy opens the door to the freedom of speech – a freedom that doesn’t have to obey any media interests whatsoever.
All right, but what is a photo essay in the first place?
Image by Federico Alegría
A photo essay is a narrative that uses a group of images to tell a story or emphasize a specific concept. The camera plays a utilitarian role, and is pretty far from what the final result can convey to those who read it (either completely or just partially). Being a narrative in a very holistic form, the essay should include the following elements in the most extreme cases:
Not all essays will have allow such a complex storyline, but we can take some of these elements to formulate an idea of what an essay should include. Therefore, a phot essay is a way to tell a story from beginning to end, with substance and a meaningful content.
Most photographic essays require preparation, organization and direction. Photographic essays began to be published in the 1930s after magazines saw that a story could best be told if the text was accompanied by photographs. It is no coincidence that, by this time, cameras had evolved such that they could capture images quickly enough to freeze motion. Also, portability came into the picture thanks to the practical nature of 35mm film. It was LIFE magazine that coined the term “Photographic Essay”. One of the most classic photography essays they published is “Country Doctor” by W. Eugene Smith. This essay documented Dr. Ceriani’s working life as a traveling doctor in rural areas of the United States.
An essay can be short, mid — or long-term according to various factors that can affect the image recording process. After achieving a certain number of images, the editing process can take place and the story can begin its narrative course. Some things that can affect the recording process are the limited resources we endure while working abroad, and limited access to the subject or the circumstances-recurrence ratio.
- Pick a Topic
Obvious indeed, but choosing a good topic can be difficult without prior research. This is perhaps the hardest part of creating a photographic essay. The wisest way to approach this is to select a topic that won’t be so hard to access – not just because it might be easy. Since it will be accessible, the risk of frustration will be lower than it is when handling a difficult topic. Experience will eventually lead us into working with trickier subjects.
Image by Dương Trần Quốc
A photo essay doesn’t need to always be dramatic and dense. They can be done just for the fun of it, or to discover new possibilities for the photographic narrative. Some topics that are generous when they are addressed are:
- The City
- Everyday Work
- Choosing subjects correctly
When working a photographic essay, is important to choose subjects correctly to keep ourselves within a certain scope. Even if you don’t have a human subject to portray, making use of personification can always be a good guide to avoid losing course. For example, you can focus on silence by stating that the images attempted to capture the presence of silence. Also, solitude can be addressed without any human elements, but still maintain the purpose of capturing “the human footprint”, for example.
Image by Quino Al
- Quantity of images
It is important to define the number of pictures we are willing to present on our final essay. Defining that number is important for a couple of reasons. The first one is because it will set the bar of our project’s scope (critical when we start to consider our resources). The second one is our readers. The story should be told from start to finish with high impact, just like a short novel or a story. If we stuff our essay with “filler” images, it will ultimately lose its power.
Image by HB – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons. wikimedia. org/w/index. php? curid=88434
Let the fun part begin! After defining the previous three elements, we can start shooting to create a great storytelling essay.
Image by Joe Gardner
Editing must not be confused with post-processing, which is an important element of the production of the final photographs. Editing refers to the precise selection of the images that will be included in our essay. There is no perfect quantity or order. You (or your editor) will have to be very objective to select the perfect mix to tell the story the way you want it to be told.
Constant planning, execution and checking can and should be applied to all the stages discussed above. Photo essays are a great way to improve not just as photographers, but as storytellers, too. Viewing photo essays with a reader’s mindset will give you a better feeling of photography’s storytelling power.
6 Photo Essay Examples & Samples
We all know that photographs tell a story. These still images may be seen from various perspectives and are interpreted in different ways. Oftentimes, photographers like to give dramatic meaning to various scenarios. For instance, a blooming flower signifies a new life. Photographs always hold a deeper meaning than what they actually are.
In essay writing, photographs, along with its supporting texts, play a significant role in conveying a message. Here are some examples of these kinds ofВ photo-text combinations.
Narrative Photo Essay
Student PhotoВ Example
Great DepressionВ Essay
What Is a Photo Essay?
From the name given, a photo essay is a written article consisting of a collection of images and texts. It has the ability to tell a story through a progression of events, emotions, and concepts. You see, there are times when photographs cannot stand alone.
You can present a picture of an old, worn-out chair and nobody will see it more than it is. If you create a photo essay to explain how such chair was used by President Roosevelt, then people will begin to look at the photograph with awe. This is the same for freeВ essays, as it is sometimes difficult to create mental images through mere wording.
Overall, aВ photo essay is still the same as a normal shortВ essay, except that ideas are translated into visual images.
How to Write a Photo Essay
First of all, you would need to find a topic that you are interested in. With this, you can conduct a thorough research on the topic that goes beyond what is common. This would mean that it would be necessary to look for facts that not a lot of people know about. Not only will this make your essay interesting, but this may also help you capture the necessary elements for your images.
Remember, the ability to manipulate the emotions of your audience will allow you to build a strong connection with them. Knowing this, you need to plan out your shots. With the different emotions and concepts in mind, your images should tell a story along with the essay outline.
Travel PhotoВ Example
Free Photo Essay
Purpose of a Photo Essay
With good writing skills, a person is able to tell a story through words. However, adding images for your essay will give it the dramatic effect it needs. The photographs and the text work hand in hand to create something compelling enough to attract an audience.
This connection goes beyond something visual, as photo essays are also able to connect with an audience emotionally. This is to create an essay that is effective enough to relay a given message.