Essay Photos

  • 1

    Get permission. If you plan to publish, you’ll need signed waivers from all of your subjects. Even if you don’t plan to publish with a commercial organization but intend to use the images for a personal blog or website, it is polite to ask for permission in advance. If you’re planning to photograph children, always ask their parent’s permission. Make it easy and comfortable for subjects to decline being photographed.
    • Consider how difficult it will be to get permission to photograph your subjects. If you already have relationships established, it will be easier. If not, allow for extra time to get permission and/or waivers.
    • Schools, daycares, and other places with kids typically have more regulations on who can be photographed and for what purposes. You’ll usually need to get parental approval, in addition to permission from those in charge.[7]
  • 2

    Research your subject. Before you arrive, conduct online searches, read the website of the topic you select, and make phone calls or send emails to find out more. The better you understand your subject before the day of the shoot, the more prepared you’ll be to take images that truly capture the essence of the subject matter.
    • Consider doing interviews with people involved prior to the shoot. Ask things like, “What’s the most interesting thing you do during this event?” or “How long have you been involved with this organization?”
    • These interviews are also a great opportunity to ask for permission and get waivers.
    • If you’re going to visit a job site, charitable event, or other large group activity, ask the person or persons in charge to explain what you’re doing to everyone before you arrive.[8]
  • 3

    Create an outline. Once you have your subject and permission to shoot, take a few moments to sketch out an idea of what photos you’ll need. Most essays need a variety of images to showcase the various aspects of the topic. You’ll want to include at least a signature photo, establishing shot, several detail shots, and a “clincher” photo at the end.[9]

  • 4

    Choose a focus image. Sometimes referred to as signature photos, these should be images that capture the heart of your subject. Think of famous photos like the “Migrant Mother” image by Dorothea Lange, capturing a woman and her children during the Great Depression. This photo has become synonymous with the Great Depression in the US.

  • 5

    Take an establishing shot. This should be a wide-angle image of the overall story. If you’re shooting a day of work at an office, an image of a line of workers entering the building at the beginning of the day could be used as an establishing shot.

  • 6

    Plan out detail images. These shots should include a variety of portraits, close up shots of specific actions, and interactions. For instance, you could include a portrait of your “main character,” for an essay on a day at the office, typing on a computer. You could also include interaction images of the character leading a meeting with others or talking over coffee in the break room. Close ups can include things like images of your subject’s hands as she types or detailed shots of her computer screen.

  • 7

    Include a clincher. This image may not be apparent to you in the beginning, but most photographers say they know it when they see it. It’s an image that wraps up the essay for the viewer. This image should say “the end,” give a call to action, or show the end result of a day in the life or how to sequence.[10]

  • This month's Photojournalism Links collection highlights 10 excellent photo essays from across the world spanning five continents, including Pete Muller's powerful work shot in the Ebola-ridden Sierra Leone. His two sets of photographs, featured below, were made on assignment for National Geographic, and are the first two in a four-part series examining the epidemic in West Africa. Muller's pictures document the battle fought by medical workers, body collectors, and burial teams to bring the crisis ravaging Freetown and the country, under control. The story and images from the city's King Tom cemetery are particularly harrowing; in just a few months, it has been expanded to three times its former size and the large number of fresh burial mounds make it look more like a construction site than a typical graveyard.

    Pete Muller: How Ebola Found Fertile Ground in Sierra Leone's Chaotic Capital | How the Fight Against Ebola Tested a Culture’s Traditions (National Geographic News)

    Uriel Sinai: In Africa, Mosquito Nets Are Putting Fish at Risk (The New York Times) These stunning photographs by Uriel Sinai from Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia, show how mosquito nets meant for Malaria protection have ended up being widely used in fishing, since they are cheaper than actual fishing nets and can be even more effective, especially in shallow waters.

    Andy Spyra: The enemy within: Boko Haram’s reign of terror across Northern Nigeria | The enemy within: A closer look at survivors of Boko Haram attacks across Northern Nigeria (The Washington Post In Sight) The German photographer has spent more than three years documenting the northern Nigeria. His pictures provide a rare view into communities under Boko Haram's terror.

    Mosa'ab Elshamy: Exploring the Mawlids of Egypt (TIME LightBox) These excellent photographs capture spiritual celebrations within Egyptian Sufism.

    Manu Brabo: In Ukraine, The Frozen Tears of Donetsk (Paris Match L'Instant) The Spanish photographer, known for his work in Syria, is now in Ukraine to document the upsurge in fighting. | See also Brabo's work on the MSNBC and Al Jazeera America websites

    Lynn Johnson: Healing Soldiers (The National Geographic) Compelling portraits of U.S. soldiers treating their war traumas by participating in art therapy, where they create painted masks to express how they feel. The images painted on them symbolize themes such as death, physical pain, and patriotism.

    George Steinmetz: Treading Water (The National Geographic) These pictures from Florida's southeastern coastline capture a region with a lot to lose as sea levels continue to rise.

    Álvaro Laiz: Ninjas: Gold Rush In Mongolia (Wired Raw File) These photographs document the hard and dangerous work of amateur gold miners.

    Mark Abramson: An Immigrant’s Dream for a Better Life (The New York Times Lens)Extraordinary, in-depth photo essay that follows the life of a young Mexican immigrant woman and her family in California.

    Emanuele Satolli: In the Bag for North (TIME LightBox) Revealing still life images of Central American migrants' sparse belonging on their journey toward the United States.

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