At our weekly Foto Ruta’s, we ask our clients to think in themes, topics, concepts, and/or ideas. We give them a set of clues to explore a neighborhood in Buenos Aires and these clues are then brought to life through their imagination, interpretation, and of course their cameras. It’s an exercise in creativity and exploration, but also one of storytelling.
For the last one hundred years photography and storytelling have gone hand in hand. In the last 20 years film and video have become at least as predominant in doing the same. From photojournalists documenting world wars to following the careers of artists, musicians, politicians, and even a child growing up, no other medium has been so effective at presenting a narrative that is visually intriguing, poetic, literal, and emotional.
Anyone who enjoys photography inevitably has their favorite subjects to photograph: nudity, architecture, street life, nature…fire juggling clowns at intersections in Buenos Aires during rush-hour… But photographing one subject over and over again doesn’t make it a story. Telling a story with photos takes more than just a skillful photographer and curiosity. An impacting photo story can only be developed by photographers who understand the emotions and concepts behind the subject and the narrative.
Here are Foto Ruta’s tips to help you produce a photo essay that successfully tells a story:
1. Find a topic
Photo essays are most dynamic when you as the photographer care about the subject. Often when we begin our hobby in photography, we’re overly influenced by photographs we’ve already seen of a certain place or context. It’s difficult to develop our own angle or perspective. However, for photo-essays, it’s extremely important that you’re decisive about your topic. It’s not about wandering around aimlessly with a camera. Pick a topic. One topic. Make certain it’s something you’re interested in or have a passion for. Your photos will reflect your level of interest.
2. Do your research
This is a big one. Telling a story with images means you have to step outside the world in which you’re only concerned about making the picture pretty. Stories must be both visual AND have accurate content. This means its a good idea to find out more about your topic before you go and document it. Shoot informed. This may mean talking to people that live in a certain place, spending some time on wikipedia, looking up the work of others who have documented similiar or the same topic. But don’t shoot blind. If it’s a fight you’re wanting to capture, at least find out the name of the guy in the ring.
3. Seek out emotion
Every dynamic story is built on emotions that touch the heart of its audience. Anger. Joy. Fear. Hurt. Excitement. The best way you can connect your photo essay with its audience is to draw out the emotions within the story and utilize them in your shots. In another sense, include PEOPLE. Look for the expressions on their faces, their interactions, and how they react and engage with your selected topic.
4. Make a shoot list
Whether you decide to sit down and extensively visualize each shot of the story, or simply walk through the venue in your mind, you will want to think about the type of shots that will work best to tell your story. I am a massive fan of the shoot list. In fact, perhaps a little obsessed. The simple exercise of making a list of the photos you want to take ( include sketches if you want ) has an incredible impact on the variety, originality, and success of telling a story. Once we are on-location shooting it is easy to forget the ideas we had the night before and it’s easy to miss the more important shots. Take the time to make a list. It’s well worth it.
5. Learn to select your images
There is nothing worse then having to sit through a photo documentary that has hundreds of redundant images of the same thing. As a photographer telling a story you must become ruthless with your work. Sometimes a story can be told in a single image or even a triptec. You do not need 57 photos to do the trick. When you select your images for a photo-essay, think about what that image is saying. Does it contribute to the story or is it just nice to look at? A typical news story might have 2-3 images. Online this may be increased to 10-12. If the story is more artistic or spans over a long period of time you might choose to include more images, but the same rules apply. Learn to select your work with the subject at the forefront of your mind, not how good the image would look on a calendar.