How do you capture and convey the essence of a place with still photographs? A well-crafted photo essay is the answer. Travel magazine photo editors will tell you “a location isn’t a story.” In other words, you can’t suggest an idea to a publication by saying, “I want to do a story on Italy.” You need to choose a topic and focus on it. Applying this concept to your personal projects yields far more interesting results.
I’ve been fortunate to travel to many exotic locations to create numerous photo essays for popular publications, and I’ve learned a lot in the process. The key to a successful photo essay isn’t just about stringing a series of good, single photographs together; it’s about telling a story with an interesting sequence of images.
CHOOSING A SUBJECT
Photo essays don’t have to be about subjects on the far side of the planet. A wedding seen from the bride’s or groom’s point of view, perhaps starting when he or she first wakes up on the day of the big event and finishing when the newlyweds leave at the end of the day, can add a personal, candid dimension to the ordinary wedding album. The same approach works well for other events like a child’s first visit to Disneyland or an experience at a zoo, and for travel photography, too.
The best photo essays are often those that come from a personal interest, so search “inside” yourself before you go “outside” looking for ideas. Ask any photographer with a successful book, and he or she will tell you the subject matter is something he or she cared about. The time, effort and dedication it takes to build a truly memorable collection of photography can only be sustained with this type of relationship.
Once you’ve come up with an idea, the next step is to create a strong thematic body of work.
THE ESTABLISHING SHOT
For our purposes here, I’ll create a photo essay called “The Caribbean: A Cultural Melting Pot.” We don’t have to stay married to this title, but a good working title gives us a concept and starting point. We’ll concentrate on the diverse populations of the Caribbean as the subject matter.
We need a dramatic “opener,” an establishing shot that draws the viewer into our photo essay and gives some sense of what our photo essay is about. A photograph of school children in the Bahamas could illustrate our concept.
A good alternate would be one of the most visually striking events that takes place several times a week on the island of St. Maarten: the arrival of wide-body flights into Princess Juliana International Airport. By including a person on the beach, not only have we given scale to the photograph, but we’ve also created a sense of place and touched upon our subject matter. We now can depart into the body of our photo essay.
Portraits of people in their environment, whether it’s a park ranger in Yosemite or a fisherman showing off his catch with a boat and lake in the background, add an important human element to a photo essay, especially a travel-oriented one. The goal is to create an image that transmits emotional content and engagement with the subject and conveys a sense of the environment in which he or she lives, works or plays.
For our Caribbean photo essay, one of the unique aspects of St. Maarten/St. Martin is that half the island is Dutch (St. Maarten) and the other half, French (St. Martin). Within each side are people from around the globe.
To help illustrate the diversity, I did an environmental portrait of a young woman from Ethiopia, who now lives and works in St. Martin, against a mural in the town of Marigot, and an environmental portrait of a native of France who owns the restaurant Les Escargot in Philipsburg on the Dutch side of the island. When these two vertical images are next to each other in a layout, a visual drama is created.
With my photo essay firmly established on the diverse people of the Caribbean, I continue with a variety of close-up portraits and shots of people involved in daily activities, and then finish with a strong closing shot. In this case, the closing shot returns to the beach atmosphere of the opener and sums up the experience of relaxed island culture.
While my photographic interests are people-oriented, there are countless other opportunities for photographic exploration in the Caribbean. Divers can document their underwater experiences. Those with an interest in architecture can explore the vast array of structures, from majestic hotels such as Jade Mountain in St. Lucia to the adult playground of the Casino Royale on St. Maarten. The Caribbean flora and fauna is still another option.
We’re so fortunate to be photographers at a time when we can design a book on our computers using a variety of templates and then upload our images, and for less than $50, create a professional-looking book.
Imagine having a set of books containing your photo essays. In terms of preserving memories, as well as leaving behind a visual legacy, there’s simply nothing better. Your photo essay isn’t complete until the images are put in a form that you and others can appreciate.
Keep in mind that it’s not just the quality of the printing; it’s what goes between the covers that will determine the quality of the book. Be a good editor, put your best work in, and don’t use similar images. No one needs to see the Sphinx from three slightly different angles. It will hurt the flow of a book and bore your viewers/readers.
Printing horizontals sideways to fit in the book also will disrupt the flow. Either print them as a double page or put them on a single page, which leaves plenty of room for captions.
Speaking of text, include an introduction (one page is usually plenty). Chapters can be created if it helps the flow. For example, if I wanted to have photo essays on the people, the architecture, and the flora and fauna of the Caribbean in the same book, I could separate them by chapters and begin each of those divisions with an establishing shot and one page of text. My introduction then would link together the photo essays.
What you don’t want is a critique like the one delivered by American satirist Ambrose Bierce: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”
View more of Mark Edward Harris’ photo essays at www.markedwardharris.com.