Telling a Story with a Photo Essay
A picture is worth a thousand words, literally! This adage failed to add something about how pictures equal ten thousand emotions too. Photos can achieve what very few written texts can, which is connected with all 5 primary human senses and others beyond the physical. This makes them one of the most powerful mediums of communication that every single person can relate to, probably more than literature, fine art and music. Captured correctly, a photo can show entire moments in a singular frame of time and engross two generations decades apart together, even if the breath of life is absent.
A photo essay is an essay made completely of pictures. You can tell entire stories most intimately and employ all your typical stylistic devices without ever uttering (or writing) a single word. It’s powerful and surprisingly simple; so simple that most people never quite get it right. Any essay that solely communicates with photos needs proper planning, just like a worded essay. It isn’t just matter of throwing random pictures together. You need to have a pretty solid idea of what objectives you intend to communicate, how to achieve those objectives with certain photos and at certain stages, and what kind of effect you want to draw out from your audience.
Building Connections & Showcasing Visual Perspectives
The best part about photo essays is that they can be used to communicate anything, from family gatherings, the history of a place, trips, journeys, festivals, menus, cultures, and anything else that is visible under the sun. For example, communicating a family’s 50-year history with a single written essay can prove difficult because you might not have all the information that you need and some of the characters might not even be alive. With a photo collection, however, you can sum everything up in a few powerful pages that take the reader from 1950 to 2018 on a surreal journey through time. Because of how effortlessly impactful and vivid they are, documentary photography can be used as a powerful critique and protest tool. They can also be used to capture important moments in time, such as Dorothea Lange’s iconic Depression Era photo essays which depicted the state of America at this time. Her photos showcase not only the sad state of affairs and impact to the economy during the time but also love, tenacity and resilience of the people of that time.
A photo essay should be told from your unique perspective, which means that you are channelling your own emotions to the audience. If you are in a Creative Arts course, you may need to capture your photos with a camera, which allows you more flexibility in terms of the creative direction, the mission statement and the overall narrative. You can choose what effects to incorporate which may accentuate certain emotions, for example, certain photos could have a sepia feel to showcase the coldness of a situation. It doesn’t, however, mean that you have to use your own photos for the essay. You could build a catalogue from the works of others only making sure to credit those photos to the rightful owners, just as you would do citation in word essays. What is important is how you tell the story with the photos that you have in your collection.
Settling On a Topic and Choosing an Approach
Just as in text writing, you need to settle on a topic which you are interested in or one in which you can dedicate valuable research time to without feeling overwhelmed. If you do plan on presenting your photo essay to an audience, then the topic that you choose should be relevant to them. Similarly, the topic that you pick shouldn’t be too wide, or you won’t be able to cover it sufficiently. Neither should it be too narrow, otherwise it might prove difficult to garner enough interest in the topic, even from yourself. But it should be something that inspires you, and if it does, chances are it will evoke emotions in others too.
It is important to choose how you are going to approach the essay. The subject can be as global or as personal as you want it to be, with no particular preference between the two. You can go for the thematic approach which is the global one and covers wider-scope issues affecting everyone or which most people can relate to. The narrative approach, on the other hand, gives you a lot of latitude with what you can incorporate in your essay, and you can make it quite personal too. Getting the right shot for the latter category might be a bit difficult, but on the flipside, you can create the story just how you’d like it to turn out. Choosing an approach before you start lets you know what kinds of shots and effects to select for your photo essay.
Do Research on the Subject
You should do thorough research on the subject if you want your essay to stand out. The better your comprehension of the topic, the better equipped you’ll be to select the best shots and effects to use in your essay. It doesn’t suffice to incorporate any photo in your collection. It has to truly capture the essence of what you are trying to project at each stage. This is what creates the unifying emotion(s) which is the intent of these essays. You might want to consider visiting the sites or interviewing the subjects first before you actually take up the shoot. If you have a large collection of photos, you alone can choose which ones will be the best fit for your introduction shot, signature shots, detail shots, and a clincher shot to seal the deal, just like the introduction, thesis, arguments and conclusion of a written essay.
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