Today Christina Nichole Dickson looks at the topic of Photo Essays. Christina is a photojournalist for Revolutionary Media. She is also an instructor with the Institute in Photographic Studies. Her work may be found at Christina Nichole Photography.
In the last twenty years, video and film have become the predominant forms of modern storytelling. But before video, there was photography. And for the last one hundred years photography and storytelling went hand in hand.
Now more than ever, the power of storytelling ought to be harnessed. But telling a story with photos takes more than just a skillful photographer. An impacting photo story can only be developed by skillful photographers who understand the emotions and concepts behind ever-great story.
The form of such a story is called the photo essay.
What is a Photo Essay?
A photo essay is very simply a collection of images that are placed in a specific order to tell the progression of events, emotions, and concepts. Used by world class photojournalists such as Lauren Greenfield and James Nachtwey, and Joachim Ladefoged to name a few, the photo essay takes the same story telling techniques as a normal essay, translated into visual images.
5 Photo Essay Tips
A photo essay isn’t simply for photojournalists however. Every human being is drawn to stories. Whether you are an amateur or a professional, the photo essay is a brilliant way to bring your images to life and touch your family, friends, and coworkers.
1. Find a topic: Photo essays are most dynamic when you as the photographer care about the subject. Whether you choose to document the first month of a newborn in the family, the process of a school drama production, or even a birthday party, make your topic something in which you find interest.
2. Do your researchh: If you document a newborn’s first month, spend time with the family. Discover who the parents are, what culture they are from, whether they are upper or lower class. If you cover the process of a school’s drama production, talk with the teachers, actors and stage hands; investigate the general interest of the student body; find out how they are financing the production and keeping costs down. If you photograph a birthday party, check out the theme, the decorations they plan on using, what the birthday kid hopes to get for his or her gifts. All of these factors will help you in planning out the type of shots you set up for your story.
3. Find the “real story”: After your research, you can determine the angle you want to take your story. Is the newborn the first son of a wealthy family on whom the family legacy will continue? Or does the baby have a rare heart condition? Is the drama production an effort to bring the student body together? Or is it featuring a child star? Is the birthday party for an adolescent turning 13, or the last birthday of a dying cancer patient? Though each story idea is the same, the main factors of each story create an incredibly unique story.
4. Every dynamic story is built on a set of core values and emotions that touch the heart of its audience. Anger. Joy. Fear. Hurt. Excitement. The best way you can connect your photo essay with its audience is to draw out the emotions within the story and utilize them in your shots. This does not mean that you manipulate your audience’s emotions. You merely use emotion as a connecting point.
5.Plan your shots: Whether you decide to sit down and extensively visualize each shot of the story, or simply walk through the venue in your mind, you will want to think about the type of shots that will work best to tell your story. I recommend beginners first start out by creating a “shot list” for the story. Each shot will work like a sentence in a one-paragraph story. Typically, you can start with 10 shots. Each shot must emphasize a different concept or emotion that can be woven together with the other images for the final draft of the story.
Remember that story telling takes practice. You don’t have to be an incredible writer to pull off a powerful photo essay. All you need is a bit of photographic technique, some creativity, and a lot of heart. And once you begin taking pictures in stories, your images will never be the same.
In part II of this series on Photo Essays, I will give a practical example of how I apply these techniques in a photo essay of my own.
Photo essays can be an extremely powerful medium to tell your nonprofit’s story. People respond strongly to visuals, and a photo essay done well can elicit that strong reaction. This reaction can lead to donations, new volunteers and a greater awareness of your cause as visitors connect and spread the word.
By definition, a photo essay is a set of photographs (usually around 5 to 10) that tells a story. The photos relate to one another and are meant to evoke emotion and relay a message.
There is one main prerequisite for a good photo essay. Your nonprofit needs to have the resources to produce high-quality photos. This could mean a talented volunteer or staff member, or it could mean spending the funds to hire a professional photographer. Just remember, blurry photos with dim lighting typically won’t get the job done.
Wondering how a photo essay can help your nonprofit in concrete terms? We’ve outlined a few of the major benefits.
Connects Visitors to Your Mission
By putting a face to the message, photography instills a connection to your cause and the people that your nonprofit serves. The photo essay might tell the personal story of someone who’s benefited from your services, or it might demonstrate a real need for the work your nonprofit does. Whatever you decide to photograph, visitors will connect to a strong message behind those well-composed photos.
World Wildlife Fund put together a photo essay on the global water crisis. WWF uses detailed photos of intensely dry Earth and thirsty children to drive home their message. Flipping through the photo essay, the gravity of the water crisis hits you. With varying viewpoints and landscapes, and subjects young and old, WWF positions the water crisis as truly global in six carefully chosen photos.
Makes Content Easy to Digest
Not everyone will read content. But looking at photos requires a lot less commitment. Most readers scan rather than read every word. A photo essay tells a story without words, so there’s not a skimming option. Many people will give more time and attention to visuals, like photographs and video.
Think about it. When you land on a website, do you pause and spend a little more time with the pictures, while briefly skimming the content? Raise your hand if you’re a skimmer! As much as you’d like visitors to read your content in full, most people are skimmers just like you.
Drives Visitors to Take Action
A photo essay can act as a call to action for your nonprofit. Strong images can make a bigger impression than even the most perfectly worded mission statement. A photo essay following a little girl as she wakes at the crack of dawn and travels miles on foot simply to attend a clearly underfunded school would achieve a more powerful reaction than whatever emotions you’ve just felt reading this sentence. If done right, that reaction could translate into a higher conversion rate on your website, which in turn would increase your ability to help more girls get to better schools.
After a devastating earthquake in Nepal, the Red Cross used heart-wrenching photos of victims and structural damage. When site visitors are overcome with the inevitable emotional response to these photos, they may look for a way to help. The Red Cross placed multiple ways to help disaster victims right next to the slideshow. Presenting a need in the photos and offering a solution right beside them will increase conversions of those moved by the photos.
Strengthens Your Other Marketing with Visuals
The photos will be compelling as a set, but you can use them individually as well. Use the ones that don’t quite fit into the photo essay elsewhere on the website, in your promotional material, on your social media channels (hello, Instagram!), or wherever else you see an opportunity to spruce things up a bit with a high quality photo.
Photo essays are a powerful way to relay your nonprofit’s story. Utilizing that power can make visitors to your website feel more connected to your community and those that you strive to help.
Have you tried using a photo essay on your nonprofit’s website? What were the benefits or drawbacks you saw? Let us know in the comments.