What Is A Picture Essay

What is the difference between a picture story and a photo essay?

This came up while working with a photographer earlier this week. I suggested he work on both stories and essays. The difference between the two wasn’t immediately clear to him and this has come up in scores of situations over the years, especially in classrooms, so I thought it was talking about here.

A lot of people say a picture story has a beginning, middle and end whereas a photo essay doesn’t necessarily. Not exactly. I’d say a picture story tends to be about one place or person or situation whereas an essay tends to be about one type or aspect of many places, things or people.

Regardless, each type of story requires the same thing: A thread that holds them together. The thread can, and should, vary widely from one story or essay to the next. You could make pictures of a thousand guys with beards but not have a cohesive body of work unless something other than beards makes the images relate to each other, for instance. Or you could follow one person’s life for years and still not have a set of pictures that tell a story if you’ve not had a narrative in mind.

A way of saying this is that you could make a bunch of threads and work very hard to do so. But that doesn’t mean those threads make a tapestry. 

Why is it important to work on both stories and essays? On the one hand, having both in your portfolio makes you a more attractive hire. On another, each requires a different set of skills and mind set. Together they push what you can achieve, they help you reach a potential you might not otherwise.

Working on picture stories tends to require immense personal skills. Being able to stay in a setting for great lengths of time isn’t easy. The subject has to want you there and getting to that point isn’t a clear path. The story changes, life gets complicated, you have to adjust and reinterpret - it’s like knitting a sweater for someone while you’re in a boxing match. And it’s not like that at all.

Essays, on the other hand, require a clarity of seeing. You define the point of view entirely, often by connecting seemingly unrelated objects, occurrences or times. They require diligence and persistence that is different from a story.

Then there are topics that require both approaches. You can do individual picture stories that combine like an essay to deal with a larger topic than one person or place might reveal. Eugene Richards'Americans We and others he has done come to mind as some of the best examples of this approach.

In the end, both forms tell a story. You’ve just gotten there by different paths. The more paths we follow in this photographic life, the richer we become.

And might I say that I’m sorry for the nearly two weeks of silence on this blog. A trip back home to Nebraska, selling our house and buying another, working with several photographers and taking on two multi-part assignments myself didn’t leave time for writing. I missed it.

Photo narratives

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.

Photo essay

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 package

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.

Photo 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.

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