Defining picture stories, essays and packages
Al Jazeera’s September photo essay of child amputees in Syria gave me a new perspective on the traumas caused by Syria’s ongoing war. I’d seen photos of unrest in the region before, but seeing a child with a missing leg gave me a new understanding of the suffering and plight of the 20 million people in the country.
Presenting a story through photography communicates a different — often deeper — understanding of person, place, event or narrative than can be expressed through written or spoken word. Photos, unlike text, video or maps, have the potential to show an exact representation of an exact moment, like: how a meal looks after it’s been prepared; what an officer is writing after an arrest; how much damage was done after an earthquake.
Photo storytelling is different from a picture portfolio or collection. It’s not a random collection of photos, or a display using albums from Flickr or Instagram. In a photo narrative, the storyteller is presenting a finite number of pictures around a theme or an event to communicate what happened define a situation or show details about characters. Photo-driven stories evoke a deeper understanding of scenes and details — the color of a person’s car; the scene of a crime; emotions written on a person’s face.
In journalism, photo storytelling gives a visual complement to often mundane text; in entices a second look at a story. Take a look at any news website, whether it’s ABC News, Al Jazeera English or even Time, and you’ll likely see a picture with a story headline. Pick up a newspaper and the pages are peppered with pictures. Click on a news link and results are the same: a story with either video or photo.
According to Ohio University’s Terry Eiler, a pioneer in photojournalism and former photographer for National Geographic, there are three ways of telling stories online through pictures: a photo essay, photo package or photo story.
A photo essay is a collection of pictures with an overall topic or theme. The pictures need not be of the same person or event, but they should string together to form a “big picture”.
Photo essays are used to cover events like natural disasters, to show vastness or variety, or to compare and contrast photos.
In a photo essay, both narrative and pictures drive the story; the pictures support what’s in the text, but a person can understand the topic without having to read text or captions. Pictures are placed throughout text or together in a gallery, usually as a slideshow.
For example, Reporter Mark Stratton of the BBC used pictures between paragraphs in a story about Russia’s ethnic communities. Stratton wrote of his travels in Russia, while using photos to display the diversity in looks, dress and music of different people in the country.
Photo essays are often used to show how extensive an event is — how much damage was done, how much effort something takes, how people are coping.
For example, Time’s Gaza Digs Out essay shows what Gazans faced after Israel’s Summer 2014 offensive. The photos show post-war Gazans making sense of their changed lives in school, home and on the streets.
Online photo essays are reminiscent of print presentation in use of different types frame perspectives. For example, feature print stories use photos of different sizes and types of shots (wide, medium, tight) to explain how pictures are interrelated.
While most online essays disregard size, they can use a variety of shots to show detail. Such was the case of Oregonlive’s Oregon Zoo babies essay. The gallery includes wide, medium and tight shots of elephants and other animals at the zoo.
Print news, sports and feature articles, as in the case of Heartland Magazine’s Funky Chickens piece, often show hierarchy in importance by displaying a larger, wide picture and smaller, tight pictures as details.
Photo packages are the sophisticated cousin of essays: they take photo storytelling to another by requiring supplementary text. A person needs more explanation to fully understand what the storyteller is trying to say.
Such is the case of Mother Jones’ reporting on the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. The article includes an audio slide show and paragraphs explaining why so many protesters are outside Jackson Women’s Health Organization. A person simply viewing the slideshow wouldn’t know an important detail: the clinic is the last in the state performing abortions, and state lawmakers are trying to close its doors.
Another example is The Guardian’s article about ex-pats who call Afghanistan home. A person viewing the pictures wouldn’t explicitly know the writer talking about a community of people who’ve fallen in love with the country.
Photos in a package can’t stand alone, since a viewer needs more details about their significance in a story.
A photo story is about one person, place or situation. It’s the most intimate of the aforementioned photo storytelling methods because it means the photographer is focusing on one character or scene, and letting viewers live through the photos.
Unlike essays, a story doesn’t usually include multiple places or characters. Typically, it will focus the edit on one place character that serves as the connective theme in the entire photo presentation.
Like essays or packages, they can be embedded in text or placed in a slideshow, but their intimacy allow them to stand alone, too.
For example, The Guardian did a simple photo story about an Elmo impersonator who performs in New York City’s Times Square. The pictures show how a man named Jorge makes a living by dressing as Elmo and taking pictures with tourists.
And, The Washington Post published an immersive story about the life of a rural Missouri farmer, with pictures detailing hard work and devotion to his small farm.
Some stories show a process. For example, in March 2013 the Chicago Tribune produced a picture explainer about the production process of how marshmallow peeps. This photo story has a beginning, middle and end, which are identifiable characteristics of pictures stories.
Meg Theno, senior photo editor at the Chicago Tribune, says building a photo story doesn’t mean you “treat it like a scrapbook.”
“If you’re going to put a picture gallery together, think about like you’re writing a story, you don’t write a paragraph four times,” she said.
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.