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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

A Bulang woman from Mang Jing village wearing ceremonial clothes as she picks tea in a forest tea garden, Jingmai Mountain, western Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China.
At the time, LIFE magazine was an enormously important and influential magazine that had the ability to sway public opinion in a way that no magazine, newspaper or website of today ever could. Life always had an agenda, and in the case of "Country Doctor," that agenda and the real purpose of the story was mired in the politics of health care at the time. The Truman administration argued that there were too few doctors and that compulsory federal health insurance was needed in order to pay for more. This raised the politically charged spectre of socialized medicine. The American Medical Association disagreed with the Truman administration's stance, arguing that what was needed was a better distribution of doctors, not more of them. Life took the AMA view, and they assembled Smith's photographs of Dr. Ceriani to show that young, dedicated, smart doctors like him could handle everything without outside federal interference. Even the choice of opening and closing images subtly furthered this argument without actually saying so. In the opener, the doctor is seen as everyone's idea of a rural doctor, walking down a road along a white picket fence, carrying a traditional doctor's bag en route to making a house call. But in the closer, he's shown as a modern surgeon, exhausted after a late-night operation, but completely dedicated.

The point is that well-crafted picture stories are like well-crafted narratives in other media, such as written stories, movies and even opera. Screenwriting is a particularly rich source of ideas because it gets analyzed endlessly. Here, for example, is a more expanded and elaborate version of the three plus one approach (see illustration). You might notice that this follows the basic screenplay plot structure.

The possibilities are endless, but it's always good to start from something that's known to work.

The Internet
The photo essay was born and came of age and matured in print, especially in magazines, but its future lies elsewhere. That future is in the form of the online slideshow. The term slideshow and its equivalent "PowerPoint" or "slide deck" have a number of negative associations, but if we rise above these connotations, we can find some intriguing new possibilities. The tools have become almost cinematographic, including strictly linear sequencing, transitions like cross-fades and the ability to incorporate audio, pans and zooms, and more. For many of us, me included, these are new creative elements to explore. There's a massive gulf between the potential for photo essays on the Internet and the actual essays themselves. Take a look at online editions of national and international newspapers and magazines, and you'll see that on the whole, not much thought has yet gone into crafting a slideshow version of a photo essay.

With so many new creative controls available, the potential of the online slideshow hasn't even come close to being realized. This means that the field is wide open, and as photographers, we all can experiment and develop new presentations of photo essays. Personally, I'm still working out my own ideas, and I'm experimenting with both simple and highly produced styles. The pitfall is that production values take over and swamp the original strength of the still photographs. The opportunity, on the other hand, is that some techniques, like well-applied and subtle pans and zooms, can enhance the imagery. It's work in progress, and now is the time to be putting your own stamp on the medium.

Michael Freeman is an internationally published photographer and photojournalist. He has been a leading photographer for Smithsonian magazine for over 30 years. Visit www.michaelfreemanphoto.com.


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