Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
The Photo Essay
One of the great things about this digital era is that photography has become more accessible to everyone. We can take pictures on our phones, we don't have to know how to develop film, and we can share our images easily. It's a great time for photography. Out of this image-obsessed world of ours, an old art form called the photo essay is taking on new relevance. A photo essay is a collection of images which together create some sort of narrative, theme, or message. Think of it like writing an article, but without words. You let the images do the talking. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so a photo essay should be the equivalent of a 5,000-8,000 word exposition, but it only works if the pictures make sense together and it all starts with picking the right topic.
Narrative Photo Essays
So, what sort of topic should you use for a photo essay? There are a few ways to answer this. Most photo essays are inherently narrative in that they create an emotional response by telling a story. However, some are more narrative than others. A really narrative topic could be outlining the scope and scale of a specific event. Imagine you were creating a photo essay on Hurricane Katrina. One way to do this would be to take pictures from across the entire city afterwards, creating a narrative of the damage and rebuilding.
Of course, some narratives are better told over time. If you wanted to show the impacts of Katrina in a different way, you might consider using pictures that imply a direct beginning, climax, and resolution- just like any other story. Start with pictures of the actual hurricane, then show the immediate effects, then add some pictures of the relief arriving and end with images of rebuilding. There's a continuous story there, one with a dramatic climax and emotional resolution.
Variations on a Theme
Some people like very narrative photo essays, but there are other ways to compile a photo essay as well. Another common kind of topic is the variation on a theme. For example, you could just take pictures of plants growing in the cracks of sidewalks across American cities. You could compose a photo essay of people with flower tattoos. You could make an entire photo essay on inanimate objects that look like they are smiling. Photo essays organized this way tend to do well if they emphasize either unity or juxtaposition. For example, an essay on busy city streets feels unified, harmonious, and expected. An essay on national parks crammed with people juxtaposes the expectation of the open wilderness with images of crowds. Both use images of a specific theme to create a strong essay.
Why would you do this? A topic that uses the variations-on-a-theme model still tells a story, but in a different way. A single picture of a flower growing in a sidewalk is neat, but a whole set of them takes on new meaning. Suddenly it's an exposition on resilience, on beauty in unexpected places, on urban optimism. Modern artists frequently use the repetition of visual motifs as a way to force viewers to consider the meaning of those objects in their lives, and you can do this too through the selection of photographs.
When picking a topic for a photo essay, it's always important to consider the sort of tone that you want to set. Every photo essay seeks to create an emotional response, but that emotion is up to you. If you'd like to make people laugh, select a topic from popular culture like hipsters who decorate their beards. If you want to create nostalgia, compile a photo essay of images from the past. If you want to call people to action, select a topic that will make viewers angry, like the living situations of homeless children.
Use your topic to set the emotional tone of your essay; then use the pictures to guide that emotion from its introduction to its resolution. As long as you can identify the sort of emotional response you want to create, you can feel free to experiment with a range of concrete and abstract topics. How could a photo essay on a single family over four generations be similar and different to one on abandoned subway tracks? How could images of couches have the same emotional resonance as photos of family reunions, or people who look like their pets, or survivors of natural disasters? With a concrete emotional goal, any topic can become a work of art in the hands of a master photo essayist.
A photo essay is a collection of images which together tell a story, reflect on a theme, or communicate a message. A good photo essay needs a good topic, and there are ways to do this. Many people like to create highly narrative essays that tell a concrete, defined story. Others prefer to capture several images around a shared theme, forcing the viewer to appreciate the meaning of that object in their lives. All photo essays should be built around a concrete emotional response. A good photo essay is created though the marriage of emotional agenda and a topic that facilitates it. It's a great time to be a photographer, even an amateur one, and photo essays are just one more way we can use images to help ourselves and others define the world we live in.
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