In perhaps the best description I’ve seen of what the photo essay should be, the late Howard Chapnick, founder of Black Star Agency and a legendary figure in photojournalism, wrote back in the early nineties what he thought was important for a strong photo essay in his book The Truth Needs No Ally. We’ve seen a paradigm shift to digital since his book published, but Chapnick reminds us that in the end, it’s the photograph that matters most, regardless of how it was captured. Content is paramount, and though written for the documentary community, his words ring true regardless of the personal project you pursue.
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1. The photographer must start with an idea that is cogent, concise, journalistically realizable, and visually translatable.
2. The subject must have depth and diversity of situations, and visual redundancies must be avoided. Each photograph should add new dimensions of understanding to the subject being photographed.
3. Photographic essays need time—time to permit exploration of every nuance of the subject, time to allow the elements of conflict within the story to reveal themselves, time for the photographer to be immersed in the subject and grow in understanding of it.
4. Photographic essays require cooperation. Subjects of such stories should be apprised early on in the project demands on them will be great, that the photographer might intrude on the individual’s privacy in getting beyond superficial coverage.
5. If the story is based on an individual personality, it must reveal the essence of that individual, warts and all, and not be press-puffery in lieu of honesty and reality.
6. Great photographic essays are dependent on words to amplify the photographs, to interpret photographic ambiguities, to form a journalistic whole, where words and pictures are perfectly matched.
7. On a photographic essay, preconceptions and illusions are dashed. Photographic essays can turn out to be voyages of discovery in which the subject’s evolution is antithetical to the original conception. Such was Gene Smith’s journey into the life of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Lambarene. At the beginning, Smith had expected to find the saint that he had conjured up in his mind, but after months of photographing Schweitzer, Smith found him to be an autocratic man complete with human foibles.
8. The success of a photographic essay depends on attention to detail. The photographer should have a structure in mind, written or unwritten, as the essay unfolds. All along the way, the photographer should have a mental or written checklist against which the photographs are made, so that when the work is finished there are no unfilled gaps in the story.
9. Putting together a photographic essay is personal. It cannot be done by committee. It is an individual statement, so conceived that usually only the photographer is capable of putting it together in a comprehensible way. That doesn’t mean that the art directors cannot contribute meaningful ways of putting the pictures on a page or that editors cannot add valuable insights into the structuring of the essay. But ultimately, the photographer has to decide what story is to be told and how.