Photography, like writing, is a constant practice where one becomes better through repetition. What the photographer tries to see is more than just a casual snapshot taken on vacation. The photographer is one that mulls over ideas, has visions of symmetry in their mind before they shoot, and are compelled to tell a story with their camera. If you want to elevate your photographs try a photographic essay.
Here are the 10 steps to get you started:
1. Find Your Photographic Essay
A single photograph can rouse curiosity from the viewer, but a collection can tell an entire story. So how do you find the right story to tell?
The way a journalist comes up with an idea is to draw through observation, curiosity and being well informed on global events. For me, what personally draws my interest is an idea or subject that moves me. Some examples would ISIL beheading innocent people, the Great Recession’s effect on the entire world, Global Warming, overfishing in the oceans, revolutions, etc. — these are just starting points to further collect ideas.
The next step you want to do is brainstorm, mull them over, and then boil them down. You’ll eventually come to that ‘a-ha’ moment when you find exactly what you’re looking for.
You have your story now. Let’s keep moving.
A good photographic essay takes hard work, persistence, confidence, and hours of research.
You’re not just learning the history of your subject, you’re actually researching places, people, events, times of day that will render your subjects properly, plus countless scenarios to factor into the equation.
The more research you put into it, the better prepared you will be to truly understand your subject matter. You may need permission, you might need to act in a certain way depending on the culture or people you are interacting with, or even the country you’re in.
Know your factors, and never skimp on research.
3. Make a Rough outline
The bare bones of any good narrative has structure: a beginning, a middle, and end. For a photographic essay, telling a story is similar, but not exactly the same practice as the written word.
You know your point of view and the story you want to tell — so put it down into words.
Thesis: The Decline of Detroit and its Rebirth. A once bustling metropolis that was the car capital of the world and brought us Motown music, was nearly in its death throes. Even before the start of its decline after the recession, it was left in a wake of crime, urban ruin, and a bankrupt economy with everyone leaving. But Detroit is being reborn by people that gave it another chance, and now they are hoping to bring Detroit back to its glory.
Beginning: Show the ruins and destruction of abandoned buildings, portraits of people still in Detroit.
Middle: Show the struggle. Show your most elevated moment of capture, the pinnacle or the climax that really photographically tells the crux of the story. Try to make an iconic, powerful photo, and capture, over time, things you wanted to, but also uncover smaller stories you found along the way.
End: There is hardly ever a conclusion in real life, but bringing the idea or thesis of the story home by pulling it together to “wrap” things up has its part in the story you’re trying to make.
4. Go out and Do
You have your narrative. You have an outline of what you think will make a good story. Now it’s time to put it into practice, so go out in the field and start your photographic conquest. You might not get what you want on the first day, but you will get a better idea of the terrain, and hopefully make connections with your subjects who might let you into their lives. When someone understands what you’re trying to do and believes the excitement and respect you are showing them, it will make them more comfortable working with you.
Anything worth doing is done with patience. The master is one that thinks he knows nothing, and the fool is the one who thinks he knows everything. The master has patience and an undying thirst for finding something, whether it’s wisdom or a perfect photograph.
This quote by photographer Sam Abell has always resonated with me as a writer and photographer: “One of the things that I most believe in is the compose and wait philosophy of photography. It’s a very satisfying, almost spiritual way to photograph. Life isn’t’ knocking you around, life isn’t controlling you. You have picked your place, you’ve picked your scene, you’ve picked your light, you’ve done all the decision making and you are waiting for the moment to come to you….”
Now you are waiting for the Precise Moment to cross your viewfinder.
6. Caption Your photos in the Field
Although it seems tedious and unnecessary, taking notes in the field really helps to recall the event with more precision. That’s why you see writers carrying around a pen and some sort of paper in case something jumps in their mind they have to write down. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a pen and paper, take your smartphone and type in notes in a text app, or record audio notes.
I like to write adjectives that describe what I’ve captured, and the feelings and emotions I may have had at the time.
7. Taking it All In
After you’ve captured the images you are satisfied with examine what you’ve got and see if you have enough to tell the story. If not, you haven’t completed your story yet.
Self-reflection after the story is part of the narrative process. Spend time going through and looking at the images. Pick the best images you have and separate them from the rest. Look at these photos and begin to see the story formulating in front of you. The photos you choose should evoke your passion for the story.
Finally, after you’ve taken it all in and pared it down, make your photo selections.
8. Organize the Photos
Put together your photographic essay in the form of a narrative. You have the images you want selected for the story, but now it is time to think about them again, and to put them together in the narrative order: beginning, middle, and end.
Find a rhythm to your photos and put them in an order that makes sense to you.
9. Edit Photos
Whether you’re a purist who hates to have their images altered, or you make ethereal photos that are cut and chopped, always represent your work as beautifully as possible.
Edit the photos to look the best they possibly can.
10. Where to go from here
The point of the photographic essay is to have it seen. But how does an unknown photographer get their project out to people? It is difficult for well-known photographers to get their personal work out there, too.
The best place to start is trying to write an article about the work — even if you’re terrible at it. By having an introduction, or an actual story in hand, you can pitch it to magazines, websites, etc. If the story is compelling enough, and fits the publication, you have a shot.
And of course social media. I’ve never been a big proponent of sharing images on Facebook because of the way their terms of service gives them carte blanche with your photos, but I won’t deny that it might be a great way to share your photographic essay. Twitter and Google+ are two other ways to spread the content in the same fashion.
Contact blogs related to your content and ask them whether they would be interested in using your work in an article. You can write a personalized email to the editor, or you can even put together a press release if you have the writing chops. Just being honest and candid about your essay will go much further with an editor than a press release. The goal of an editor is to find the gems, and if it’s a compelling story, they’ll love it.
If you’re more inclined to keep it within your own borders, put it on your website. If you have a following that visits regularly, or if you have a popular blog like Trey Ratcliff, blast your network with the project.
Another idea is to pitch it as a book to small presses that specialize in photo books. Put together a formal submission and see where it takes you, or there is always self publishing. Some people used to call books on demand a vanity press because you didn’t have to go the traditional publishing process, but more and more, photographers are printing and selling photo books on their own. There is also the possibility of releasing it as an eBook on Amazon or iBooks for free or for a small fee (putting it up for free will make it available to a wider audience).
And finally, contact me. Precise-Moment.com loves compelling photo projects, and the purpose of the site is to tell the photographers’ story.