Photography Essay Storytelling
Photo essays rely on a simple truth: Telling stories with pictures can be more evocative and moving than using words.
A photo essay engages the viewer at a very personal level. While people can respond to written stories intellectually, photography essays often create an instant emotion within the viewer.
Photo Essay History
Telling stories through photography and photo essays is almost as old as the practice of photography itself. Photographers quickly became aware that photographs can create intense emotional responses.
Many photographers used this power to create social and political photo essays, often centered around injustice or suffering. Public response to socially conscious photo essays and outcry over the images often lead to positive social changes.
Civil War Photographer Matthew Brady
U.S. Civil War photographer Matthew Brady produced photography essays that changed people’s opinions. With a team of other photographers, Brady’s war photos changed the nation’s noble, romantic view of war.
Although Brady was merely recording events, his picture essays were powerful enough to change public opinion.
More Photo Essayists
Photo essayists are still actively telling stories to change public opinion.
Lewis Hine used photo essays to expose the harsh treatment of child laborers in early 20th-century America. Several years later, Walker Evans took photo essays of Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression.
Sometimes photographers take risks to create photo essays. Lewis Hine often had to pose as a building inspector to gain access to child labor factories.
Photo Essays of W. Eugene Smith
In the 1960s, W. Eugene Smith created photo essays of birth deformities caused by pollution in the Japanese village of Minamata. Pollution from a local chemical factory was poisoning local fish that the villagers ate.
Smith, like many photojournalists, risked his life to take his photo essays. In fact, Smith was severely beaten by workers at the chemical factory, causing injuries that contributed to his eventual death.
A Good Photo Essay
Not every photo essay has to tell stories motivated by social consciousness. Photo essays can handle almost any subject or event, no matter how dramatic it may be the large to the small.
What all good photo essays have in common is a sense of durability. Good photo essays stand the test of time, as they document the human condition.
A photo essay of a wedding (or less positive events such as a war) survives the test of time because future viewers see how the essay remains relevant in their own time.
Taking Photo Essays
Although a series of pictures that make up a photo essay can be taken in a single day, they more often are taken over a longer period of time as photographers spend more time with his or her subjects. When telling stories about a specific neighborhood, for example, the photographer may return to the neighborhood for months or even years.
Photographers gain a special understanding of their photo essay subject because they are around the subject for so long. As a result, the photographer learns where and when he or she is most likely to capture the best pictures as the photo essay develops.
Photo Essay Structure
Photography essays can tell stories in a variety of ways using many different techniques. Sometimes text captions explain the pictures in a photo essay or a full-length article accompanies the pictures. Other times words are not necessary for a photo essay, as the images alone tell the story.
Some photo essays follow a chronological order, showing the progress of a person or event through time. Other photography essays have no set order and, instead, are a compilation of varying images telling the story.
A photo essay may appear in a news magazine, be published as a book, be showcased in an art gallery or be part of a family album.
Photo Essay Ideas
Only the photographer’s imagination limits what stories can be told via photo essays. A photo essay could cover a wedding, possibly including photos from the planning stages up to the big day.
Other photo essays might trace the life of a pet from birth to death or be a series of black-and-white portraits taken of the same person.
Any subject, big or small, personal or public, has the potential to be a photo essay.
Photo Essays and Image Manipulation
Accuracy is vital when using photography essays for a newspaper or to highlight social issues. In such cases, the photographer’s reputation depends on the integrity and truthfulness of the photo essay.
Personal photo essays need not be quite as true to life. A photo essay of a wedding day, for instance, can include posed shots or retouched images.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that photo essays don’t have to tell true stories. For instance, a glamour photography shoot might create a fictional photo essay, highlighting the rise and fall of an imaginary starlet.
Photo essays only need to be truthful when telling stories of factual events.
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