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.