Photo Essay: Definition, Themes & Examples

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  • 0:04 Photo Essays
  • 0:34 Persuasive Narratives
  • 1:48 Using Photos to Tell a Story
  • 3:44 Example
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Photo essays are becoming increasingly popular forms of journalism. In this lesson, we'll talk about this art form and explore the components of a strong photo essay.

Photo Essays

Toothpick. Eyelid. Bus stop. Don't you love it when things end up being exactly what they claim to be? For example, if we were to talk about a photo essay, we'd be talking about an essay made of photos. No tricks here! Photo essays are a popular and powerful way to tell a story without relying too heavily on text. That's the goal: to communicate something simply and powerfully. It's a very popular form of journalism in our image-obsessed modern world, and something every good journalist should understand.

Persuasive Narratives

So what exactly are the elements of a good photo essay? Well, a photo essay is meant to communicate information, generally in a persuasive way. Photo essays are generally persuasive essays, which means they need a subject or theme, a direction, and a sense of purpose.

However, this is also a matter of journalism, so photo essays need to have a narrative. They communicate information or express an opinion by telling a story. There are a few ways you can choose to do this. A strict narrative will focus explicitly on a person or group's experience over a set period of time. Like most stories, it has an introduction, climax, and resolution. For example, imagine a photo essay on an immigrant's journey to America. You may start with pictures of their hometown, move to the struggles of filing paperwork, raising money, and the actual trip, then resolve with them in their new home.

However, one of the benefits of using images over text is that you can also create a subtle narrative. Your pictures may tell a less concrete story, but still convey a powerful message. Imagine compiling an essay of photos on a central theme, such as people in poverty. You may not be telling a strict story, focused on a single experience, but there's still a narrative there. You're presenting the story of poverty in America.

Using Photos to Tell a Story

Photo essays use a lot of images and minimal text to present information in a narrative fashion. Doing this, however, requires two things. First, you've got to have a good topic. Nobody will care about your photo essay if it has no social or personal relevance. Second, your pictures need to communicate the story.

So how do you do this? Basically, you need to use a range of images that each capture part of the story. This basically means that each one needs to be informative on its own, but also part of the greater narrative. Next, you need to think about the order of images. If you want to tell a story, the images need to be compiled in a way that makes sense and communicates both the narrative and information clearly.

When we put the range and order of images together, a basic template appears for a good photo essay. We start with the lead photo, which is the one that draws the audience into your story. It's like the hook of an essay or newspaper article; engaging enough to pique their interest yet subtle enough to make them want to know more. Then we have the scene photos, which set the stage of the narrative. They tend to be shot in wide angle to give the audience a sense of where the action is occurring.

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