What is a Photo Essay?

This project, Untitled: Stories of Creativity, Innovation, Success, will tell its stories via photo essays and short documentaries. “Documentary” is a well enough understood term given the widespread popularity of documentary moviemaking, but the photo essay (or picture story) form of stills photography has never taken off in Australia as it did in Europe, the UK and the USA in major print publications like Life, Look, Newsweek, Paris Match, Stern, The Sunday Times Magazine, Time and more. 

The photo essay form was born amidst the chaos and creativity of pre-war Europe when small camera photojournalism was becoming established against a background of older forms like documentary and social documentary photography. Magazines including Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Picture PostThe Daily Mirror, The New York Daily News and Vu were pioneers in commissioning and publishing photo essays and other forms of photojournalism.

The list of well-known photojournalists working during the Golden Age of Photojournalism from the 1930s to the 1950s onwards is too large to publish here but Wikipedia provides a list as a useful starting point.

Many photographers who create photo essays belong to agencies like Agence VU, Contact Press Images, ContrastoMagnum PhotosNoor Images, Oculi and VII Photo Agency.

With the decline of publishing photo essays in print form, online photo essays have taken off in print magazine and newspaper websites such as The Guardian Picture Essay section of The Guardian newspaper’s website, and others including The New York TimesLens section and Time magazine’s Lightbox.

For a time, Time magazine published 10 Best Photo Essays of the Month compilations as did Fast Company magazine’s Co.Design and Co.Exist sections here and here.

W. Eugene Smith was considered one of the greatest practitioners of the photo essay during the Golden Age of Photojournalism and Time has shared one of his most famous photo essays, Spanish Village, originally commissioned by Life magazine.

How is a photo essay made?

The now sadly defunct non-profit Collective Lens said it best:

Creating a photo essay is a combination of art and journalism. As with a written essay, the elements of a photo essay should be structured in a way that easily conveys a story to the viewer. Each individual photo contributes to the overall story, theme, and emotions of the essay. The photos you choose must not only be compositionally and artistically strong, but also informative and educational.

In its How to Create a Photo Essay page, one of the non-profit’s two pages remaining online, Collective Lens writes of the two different types of photo essays – the narrative and the thematic.

The page then lists the elements that need to be considered when creating photo essays:

  • The story – ensure your story stands alone without words, and makes sense.
  • A range of photographs – and shot types including wide, close-up, portraits, scene-setters and so on.
  • The order of the photographs – as with editing a movie, the order of the photographs must tell a story.
  • Information and emotion – evoking emotion while providing information best tells the story.
  • Captions – optional, but can be effective in adding facts, figures, names and other useful details.

After that it lists the types of photographs that can be included in photo essays (again note the similarity to movie editing):

  • Lead – draws in your viewers in the same way as the first two sentences of a newspaper article.
  • Scene – sets the stage by describing the scene where your story takes place.
  • Portraits – humanize your story by evoking emotion and empathy.
  • Details – provide information by focusing on a single element such as an object, a building or a face.
  • Close-ups – similar to detail shots but more tightly cropped and even simpler, more graphic.
  • Signature photo – depicts the key elements of your story in a telling moment that summarizes the theme or situation.
  • Clincher – the final photograph that evokes the emotions and impressions you want your viewers to walk away with, whether hope, inspiration, resolve or sadness.

How Does Storytelling in Words Relate to Photo Essays?

Many photo essays are designed to tell their in images alone, but some can communicate even better with the addition of words in the form of captions, audio interviews and transcripts, introductory text and written commentaries or descriptions.

Word-based storytelling can be done by the photographer who creates the photo essay, or a specialist writer or producer.

Further reading and training

Training in creating photo essays and other forms of photojournalism is available online at Lynda.com and organizations like MediaStorm as well as journalism schools in the United States, Europe and the UK.

A search of your favourite bricks-and-mortar or online bookstores will also yield dividends. For example, here are relevant search results from Amazon.com:

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