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:

  • Introduction
  • Contextualization
  • Opening
  • Development
  • Conflict
  • Continuation
  • Climax
  • Resolution
  • Closing

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.

  1. 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
  • Color
  • Joy
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Love
  • Everyday Work 
  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. Execution

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

  1. Editing

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.

About the author

Federico Alegria

Frederico is a professional photographer from El Salvador. Check out his photography portfolio.

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