The Art & Craft Of Modern Storytelling

Michael Freeman is a virtuoso of the photo essay. In this article, we show several images from his project on tea. It’s destined to be a full book, but editing down to a smaller group of images makes for a very compelling photo essay. Above: The leader of Baja Akha village on Bulangshan tea mountain, near Menghai, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China, rolling tea leaves that have just been panfried.

The photo essay came of age in the heyday of the large-circulation, general-interest print magazines, like Life, Look, Picture Post and Paris Match. 35mm handheld photography was relatively new, and it enabled photographers to work fast and loose around almost any subject. Circulations could be huge—Life at its peak was printing more than 13 million copies a week—so there was money to put into commissioning and into developing how these stories were presented. For at least 70 years it has been the engine that drove editorial photography. Dramatic, shocking, humble, workaday, innovative, the photo essay became for the print era the model for packaging a story and delivering it to an audience. What hasn’t happened, however, is that the photo essay is going down with the ship. The big magazines have either gone or are on their way down, but the photo essay itself has an independent life—and an interesting, different future.

The Art & Craft Of Modern Storytelling

What makes a photo essay or picture story (the terms are interchangeable) is a sequence of photographs that all together tell a story to an audience. A photo essay can’t exist without an audience, which is worth bearing in mind when it comes to crafting one. If you simply want to show your best images, the place to do that is a gallery wall or a gallery feature in a magazine; it wouldn’t qualify as a photo essay.

The Fundamental Structure Of A Photo Essay

A photo essay always has a theme, a reason for being and a carefully thought-through sequence of images. It’s never just a collection of images thrown into a folder and up-loaded to make a scattering of images in print, on a gallery wall or in a slideshow. I don’t mean this as throwaway advice, but as a way of introducing the idea of structure. The photo essay evolved, particularly through the 1940s to 1960s, as a way of telling a story mainly through pictures, and the heart always remained the “story.”

A horse caravan passing the Bending Building in the 600-year-old town of Heshun in southwest Yunnan, China.
A horse caravan passing the Bending Building in the 600-year-old town of Heshun in southwest Yunnan, China.

Storytelling is one of the oldest ways in which people communicate ideas and entertain, and it has its own basic dynamics, whether using words, pictures or sound, or any combination of these. There’s much to learn from nonvisual ways of storytelling, right back to the storyteller by a campfire. It turns out that there’s a very basic structure that’s common to just about every tale. It works in three acts and has, in addition, a climax or two. I call it three plus one.


Look at any good photo essay—and there are many great examples from the history of magazine feature photojournalism—and you’ll see that it has a clear structure. There’s the opening shot, the body of the essay and the closing shot. These are the three. In addition, there will be one or maybe two high-impact images somewhere within the story. These are the “key shots,” the one in three plus one. This structure forms the basic building blocks of any photo essay, and it also forms the basic structure of other narrative and artistic forms like the short story or music. Naturally, there are variations and complications that can be played with, but if you follow this fundamental structure, you’re following a dramatic outline that works. Each photograph has a defined job to do.

Monks making butter tea, Songzanlin Tibetan monastery, Shangri-La, Yunnan, China.
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.

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.
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.

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.

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

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