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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Art & Craft Of Modern Storytelling

How to make a compelling photo essay in the Internet age

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Monks making butter tea, Songzanlin Tibetan monastery, Shangri-La, Yunnan, China.
The Opener
The role of the opener is straightforward. It should grab the attention of the viewer, draw them in and compel them to turn the page or click to the next slide. That's its sole function. Because of this, openers aren't usually where you would place the key, high-impact shot, unless you just don't have something else that's strong, or you're not feeling very confident in the full body of images. If that's the case, you probably have a spot news image more than a full photo essay.

The Body
A much bigger part of the photo essay, the body carries the progression of the story from setting the context to developing the narrative. It's worth mentioning here that, for the most part, I'm describing photo essays with a definite storyline. There's a different and well-established alternative type of photo essay that's mainly pictorial, and works as a purely graphic and visual piece rather than in a true narrative way. Historically, the 1961 Monsoon essay that was commissioned by Life magazine was groundbreaking. It had no story to speak of, but it was a beautifully paced visual experience.

The Closer
Should you end with a bang or a whimper? The traditional view is to end strong, meaning a definite statement, but not necessarily as strong as the opener or key shot. Today, many magazines tend to let the story end with the text, so the final photograph can be some distance from the actual end of the story. If that's the case, the final image should be more of a whimper. If you have the luxury of knowing that your essay will end on a full page in sequence with the whole of the story, end with a bang. Ultimately, this is the area where the photographer has the least control if the work is being done freelance. You can suggest opening shots and a sequence, but the nature of magazine publishing today makes it difficult to plan the end of an article. On the other hand, for display on your own website, you have complete control, and ending with a bang is definitely the best choice.
Basically, for a high-impact shot to function, it needs to be part of a paced, rhythmic photo essay. Earlier images or pages need to build up toward it.
The Key Shot
Much as we all want every shot we take to be fantastic, the plain truth is that if we're lucky, we'll get a few great shots, a number of good ones and more still that are just okay—and that's on a very good day. If you're running a number of images together as a story, they can't all be number one. In fact, in order to give the most attention to the best shot, the previous double-page spread in print or the images in a slideshow need to be lesser. It's not so easy to think like that when evaluating your own images, but a designer, picture editor or art director can be ruthless. They should be ruthless in order to make the photo essay strong, and if you're laying out or producing your own photo essay, you need to be ruthless, too. Basically, for a high-impact shot to function, it needs to be part of a paced, rhythmic photo essay. Earlier images or pages need to build up toward it.

Digging Deeper
You may think all of this is a little primitive, even a bit too obvious, but it's possible to go much further and deeper. A wonderful example of a classic photo essay is "Country Doctor," which ran in LIFE magazine in 1948 and was photographed by W. Eugene Smith. In it, Smith, shooting for over three weeks, and the LIFE editors created a dramatically paced photo essay that introduces Dr. Ceriani and establishes his busy schedule, his utter commitment to the community and a life of constant emergency events.


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