Powerful photo essays: Tips for visual impact

Photo essays are a great way to tell a visually impactful story about your work. If you’re not sure where to begin or what to consider when crafting a photo essay, check out this Q&A where Tara shares her expertise on how to plan for and execute an effective photo essay.

(Responses edited for length and clarity.) 

Q: What are some creative ways a social impact organization could utilize a photo essay? 

Photo essays are versatile storytelling tools. They’re typically associated with more journalistic mediums, but can easily be used for NGO communications. Include a photo essay in an annual report to give your reader a break from the text. Or spruce up your Instagram presence with a carousel of photos.

Q: Photo essays tend to be thematic or narrative. What is the first thing one should consider when choosing the right type of photo essay?  

Good question. A thematic approach is when you curate photos that relate to a similar topic. For example, if you’re telling a story related to agricultural solutions in Latin America, you could curate a photo essay that showcases farming techniques in that region.

A narrative approach follows more of a traditional story structure and typically is about one person or a group of people.

Q: What kind of research goes into crafting a photo essay?

Pre-work ideally includes site visits. If that’s not possible, then talk to people who have been to the area recently and set up meetings with local leaders or people in the community who are knowledgeable about the topic. Also, try to interview the subject beforehand and think about how you’d like to shape the story. 

Even if you only need one photo, some level of pre-work is a good idea. It takes a lot of energy and money to execute a shoot, so once you’re there maximize the opportunity!

Q: Let’s hone in on the narrative approach. To profile an individual, such as a local game-changer, what would you recommend?

When profiling an individual, it’s important to understand the work they do and the life they lead before showing up for the shoot. We want to shoot action, so ask about any significant events that might be happening or daily routines that could be interesting to document.

Q: What are some tips to capture a project where tons of pre-planning isn’t possible?

Write out a plan as much as possible, even if it’s just what you hope to see, and then embrace a spirit of flexibility.

Q: Let’s take a look at some case studies. Here is a Turkish All-Women’s Theater Group that was featured in The Guardian. It tells a vivid story about this group of women and their lives. Tell us about your approach here.

This story is significant because it’s about both an individual woman, Ummiye, and a community of female actors who are impacting their society in an unusual way. Ummiye was the founder of the troupe and I wanted to showcase her home life as well as what it was like traveling with the group. I was allowed backstage and in her home and it was an honor to document. It’s a story of resilience and change, the type I love capturing.

Turkish All-Women’s Theater Group

Q: And let’s also take a look at this photography featuring chhaupadi, a ritual in western Nepal in which menstruating women are isolated. This was featured in a New York Times article. Would you still consider this photo essay narrative or thematic? 

Good question. The photos captured for this story are both narrative and thematic. The part about the woman who changed her village’s perspective about chhaupadi has a narrative effect. In other parts of the story, it’s more about providing background knowledge about the practice and how it affects women, so the photos in this instance provide a thematic purpose. 

Both approaches were necessary to tell the story: to show how widespread the practice is, while also focusing on individuals like the teacher who changed her entire village’s approach. 

chhaupadi contact sheet
Chhaupadi photo selects for the NY Times

Q: What are things to consider when reviewing a photo essay before publishing it? 

Be brutal while reviewing your photo essay. One of the most common mistakes we see are nearly identical photos side-by-side. Each photo should contribute a significant and distinct part to the story.

Q: What are some tips on how to do a photo essay with a tight budget? 

  • It’s best to avoid stock photography for a narrative photo essay. If you don’t have the photos, think about a thematic set of pictures which might be easier to find with stock.
  • Ask your subject to provide photos from significant events in their lives. 
    • Note: Getting photos after a photo shoot is typically difficult; so if you’re depending on photos (or video) from the subject, make sure you have them in advance of the shoot, or get them during shooting if possible.  
  • Nowadays, it’s possible to do a photo shoot over Zoom if you can’t shoot on location. 
This is (literally) the most laid back I ever was on a photo shoot! Photo by Jack Zahora.

PS – also remember, text can be visual too and can greatly enhance a photo essay!

Great use of an infographic for a story https://informationisbeautiful.net/beautifulnews/

Thanks, Tara, for this deep dive into photo essays! To learn more about how your organization can incorporate visual storytelling tools (like a photo essay) into your work, we invite you to book a free discovery call with Tara!

Tags: photography, visual storytelling tips, visualstorytelling

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