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.
Whether through digital channels, print or on exhibit, the impact, influence and reach of the still image has never been greater. But with so many images fighting for our attention, how do photographers make work that most effectively stands out and connects with an audience. In this seven-part series, TIME looks back over the past 12 months to identify some of the ways of seeing—whether conceptually, aesthetically or through dissemination—that have grabbed our attention and been influential in maintaining photography's relevance in an ever shifting environment, media landscape, and culture now ruled by images.
The Contemporary Photo Essay
We live in an age where the volume of photographic output has never been greater. Yet the propensity is for images to be conceived, received digested and regurgitated in an isolated, singular form—and without further context. Against this backdrop, a generation of committed photographers are working passionately to iterate on, and further develop the traditions for long form story telling, and in so doing, draw attention to their subject matter through new powerful, innovative and resourceful ways.
On Aug. 31 this year, the New York Times Magazine published a photo essay that interweaved the images of two Magnum photographers working on each side of the Israeli, Palestinian conflict—Paolo Pellegrin (in Gaza) and Peter van Agtmael (in Israel). The essay was not only a creative and effective way of balancing a delicate and sensitive story, it was also, as Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein explained in a note about the project, conceived in part as a reaction to “the prevalence of cellphone cameras and social media [that had] led to many more images of Gaza than in previous iterations of this long-running conflict."
"As powerful as these photos were," he wrote, “the speed and fervor of their dissemination tended to bring them to us isolated from context.” The Times Magazine story was a considered attempt to have Pellegrin and van Agtmael slow things down and in Silversteins words “try to capture a deeper and more narrative sense of the texture of life on the ground." The resultant essay, that intentionally combines two aesthetically different bodies of work emphasizes “that the fates of average Israelis and Palestinians are intertwined.”
Photographer Matt Black has subverted the prevalent philosophy of Instagram for his project The Geography of Poverty. Although using Instagram as one of the primary platforms for the work, Black has maintained a thematic and aesthetic cohesion to produce a dedicated feed—devoid of distraction or interference—that builds image by image, to deliver an investigation on poverty that is essayistic and closer to that of a traditional photo essay. On the website—exclusively dedicated to the project—Black explores the potential of geo-tagging to extend the project and map the images (for this project, Black was selected as TIME's Instagram Photographer of the Year in 2014)
Photographers such as Diana Markosian with her work made in Beslan, Russia and Carolyn Drake in Turkistan have embraced different types of media and photographic approaches--including still life, documentary, portraiture as well as writing and drawing. They have also actively encouraged their subjects to contribute to the artistic process and tell their own stories through notated recollections narratives and artwork, which is at times directly applied to the photographic print. As Drake says of her project Wild Pigeon that documents the lives of the Uyghur people: “I started looking for meaning at the intersection of our views, and find ways to bring the people I was meeting into the creative process. Traveling with a box of prints, a pair of scissors, a container of glue, colored pencils, and a sketchbook, I asked willing collaborators to draw on, re-assemble, and use their own tools on my photographs. I hoped that the new images would bring Uyghur perspectives into the work and facilitate a new kind of dialogue with the people I met, one that was face-to-face and tactile, if mostly without words.”
In Ukraine a generation of young, predominantly European, freelance photographers including Maria Turchenkova, Ross McDonnell and Capucine Granier-Deferre committed themselves to documenting the searing violence and the disquieting consequences of the year-long conflict—building long-term photo essays that contextualize news events through more in-depth and nuanced perspectives.
One of the most important and powerful bodies of work was produced by Daniel Berehulak, who spent more than 14 weeks covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. His work, made on assignment for The New York Times, shows that long-term commitment to a story can reap astounding returns. And a powerful continuum of work, can raise awareness and deeply affect its audience.
In an age when we're saturated with an omnivorous barrage of distracting and singular imagery, there is still a role for subtleties embodied within the traditions of long form storytelling. Through innovative, full screen photo-centric web designs and effective digital dissemination, these photo essays are drawing our attention—in different and often more meaningful ways—to important issues that we otherwise would ignore or at best feel we had seen too many times before.
Read Part 1 - Direct to Audience.
Read Part 2 - Documentary Still Life.
Read Part 3 - The Portrait Series.
Read Part 5 - From Stills to Motion.
Phil Bicker is a Senior Photo Editor at TIME