Whether through digital channels, print or on exhibit, the impact, influence and reach of the still image has never been greater. But with so many images fighting for our attention, how do photographers make work that most effectively stands out and connects with an audience. In this seven-part series, TIME looks back over the past 12 months to identify some of the ways of seeing—whether conceptually, aesthetically or through dissemination—that have grabbed our attention and been influential in maintaining photography's relevance in an ever shifting environment, media landscape, and culture now ruled by images.
The Contemporary Photo Essay
We live in an age where the volume of photographic output has never been greater. Yet the propensity is for images to be conceived, received digested and regurgitated in an isolated, singular form—and without further context. Against this backdrop, a generation of committed photographers are working passionately to iterate on, and further develop the traditions for long form story telling, and in so doing, draw attention to their subject matter through new powerful, innovative and resourceful ways.
On Aug. 31 this year, the New York Times Magazine published a photo essay that interweaved the images of two Magnum photographers working on each side of the Israeli, Palestinian conflict—Paolo Pellegrin (in Gaza) and Peter van Agtmael (in Israel). The essay was not only a creative and effective way of balancing a delicate and sensitive story, it was also, as Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein explained in a note about the project, conceived in part as a reaction to “the prevalence of cellphone cameras and social media [that had] led to many more images of Gaza than in previous iterations of this long-running conflict."
"As powerful as these photos were," he wrote, “the speed and fervor of their dissemination tended to bring them to us isolated from context.” The Times Magazine story was a considered attempt to have Pellegrin and van Agtmael slow things down and in Silversteins words “try to capture a deeper and more narrative sense of the texture of life on the ground." The resultant essay, that intentionally combines two aesthetically different bodies of work emphasizes “that the fates of average Israelis and Palestinians are intertwined.”
Photographer Matt Black has subverted the prevalent philosophy of Instagram for his project The Geography of Poverty. Although using Instagram as one of the primary platforms for the work, Black has maintained a thematic and aesthetic cohesion to produce a dedicated feed—devoid of distraction or interference—that builds image by image, to deliver an investigation on poverty that is essayistic and closer to that of a traditional photo essay. On the website—exclusively dedicated to the project—Black explores the potential of geo-tagging to extend the project and map the images (for this project, Black was selected as TIME's Instagram Photographer of the Year in 2014)
Photographers such as Diana Markosian with her work made in Beslan, Russia and Carolyn Drake in Turkistan have embraced different types of media and photographic approaches--including still life, documentary, portraiture as well as writing and drawing. They have also actively encouraged their subjects to contribute to the artistic process and tell their own stories through notated recollections narratives and artwork, which is at times directly applied to the photographic print. As Drake says of her project Wild Pigeon that documents the lives of the Uyghur people: “I started looking for meaning at the intersection of our views, and find ways to bring the people I was meeting into the creative process. Traveling with a box of prints, a pair of scissors, a container of glue, colored pencils, and a sketchbook, I asked willing collaborators to draw on, re-assemble, and use their own tools on my photographs. I hoped that the new images would bring Uyghur perspectives into the work and facilitate a new kind of dialogue with the people I met, one that was face-to-face and tactile, if mostly without words.”
In Ukraine a generation of young, predominantly European, freelance photographers including Maria Turchenkova, Ross McDonnell and Capucine Granier-Deferre committed themselves to documenting the searing violence and the disquieting consequences of the year-long conflict—building long-term photo essays that contextualize news events through more in-depth and nuanced perspectives.
One of the most important and powerful bodies of work was produced by Daniel Berehulak, who spent more than 14 weeks covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. His work, made on assignment for The New York Times, shows that long-term commitment to a story can reap astounding returns. And a powerful continuum of work, can raise awareness and deeply affect its audience.
In an age when we're saturated with an omnivorous barrage of distracting and singular imagery, there is still a role for subtleties embodied within the traditions of long form storytelling. Through innovative, full screen photo-centric web designs and effective digital dissemination, these photo essays are drawing our attention—in different and often more meaningful ways—to important issues that we otherwise would ignore or at best feel we had seen too many times before.
Read Part 1 - Direct to Audience.
Read Part 2 - Documentary Still Life.
Read Part 3 - The Portrait Series.
Read Part 5 - From Stills to Motion.
Phil Bicker is a Senior Photo Editor at TIME
Defining picture stories, essays and packages
Al Jazeera’s September photo essay of child amputees in Syria gave me a new perspective on the traumas caused by Syria’s ongoing war. I’d seen photos of unrest in the region before, but seeing a child with a missing leg gave me a new understanding of the suffering and plight of the 20 million people in the country.
Presenting a story through photography communicates a different — often deeper — understanding of person, place, event or narrative than can be expressed through written or spoken word. Photos, unlike text, video or maps, have the potential to show an exact representation of an exact moment, like: how a meal looks after it’s been prepared; what an officer is writing after an arrest; how much damage was done after an earthquake.
Photo storytelling is different from a picture portfolio or collection. It’s not a random collection of photos, or a display using albums from Flickr or Instagram. In a photo narrative, the storyteller is presenting a finite number of pictures around a theme or an event to communicate what happened define a situation or show details about characters. Photo-driven stories evoke a deeper understanding of scenes and details — the color of a person’s car; the scene of a crime; emotions written on a person’s face.
In journalism, photo storytelling gives a visual complement to often mundane text; in entices a second look at a story. Take a look at any news website, whether it’s ABC News, Al Jazeera English or even Time, and you’ll likely see a picture with a story headline. Pick up a newspaper and the pages are peppered with pictures. Click on a news link and results are the same: a story with either video or photo.
According to Ohio University’s Terry Eiler, a pioneer in photojournalism and former photographer for National Geographic, there are three ways of telling stories online through pictures: a photo essay, photo package or photo story.
A photo essay is a collection of pictures with an overall topic or theme. The pictures need not be of the same person or event, but they should string together to form a “big picture”.
Photo essays are used to cover events like natural disasters, to show vastness or variety, or to compare and contrast photos.
In a photo essay, both narrative and pictures drive the story; the pictures support what’s in the text, but a person can understand the topic without having to read text or captions. Pictures are placed throughout text or together in a gallery, usually as a slideshow.
For example, Reporter Mark Stratton of the BBC used pictures between paragraphs in a story about Russia’s ethnic communities. Stratton wrote of his travels in Russia, while using photos to display the diversity in looks, dress and music of different people in the country.
Photo essays are often used to show how extensive an event is — how much damage was done, how much effort something takes, how people are coping.
For example, Time’s Gaza Digs Out essay shows what Gazans faced after Israel’s Summer 2014 offensive. The photos show post-war Gazans making sense of their changed lives in school, home and on the streets.
Online photo essays are reminiscent of print presentation in use of different types frame perspectives. For example, feature print stories use photos of different sizes and types of shots (wide, medium, tight) to explain how pictures are interrelated.
While most online essays disregard size, they can use a variety of shots to show detail. Such was the case of Oregonlive’s Oregon Zoo babies essay. The gallery includes wide, medium and tight shots of elephants and other animals at the zoo.
Print news, sports and feature articles, as in the case of Heartland Magazine’s Funky Chickens piece, often show hierarchy in importance by displaying a larger, wide picture and smaller, tight pictures as details.
Photo packages are the sophisticated cousin of essays: they take photo storytelling to another by requiring supplementary text. A person needs more explanation to fully understand what the storyteller is trying to say.
Such is the case of Mother Jones’ reporting on the last abortion clinic in Mississippi. The article includes an audio slide show and paragraphs explaining why so many protesters are outside Jackson Women’s Health Organization. A person simply viewing the slideshow wouldn’t know an important detail: the clinic is the last in the state performing abortions, and state lawmakers are trying to close its doors.
Another example is The Guardian’s article about ex-pats who call Afghanistan home. A person viewing the pictures wouldn’t explicitly know the writer talking about a community of people who’ve fallen in love with the country.
Photos in a package can’t stand alone, since a viewer needs more details about their significance in a story.
A photo story is about one person, place or situation. It’s the most intimate of the aforementioned photo storytelling methods because it means the photographer is focusing on one character or scene, and letting viewers live through the photos.
Unlike essays, a story doesn’t usually include multiple places or characters. Typically, it will focus the edit on one place character that serves as the connective theme in the entire photo presentation.
Like essays or packages, they can be embedded in text or placed in a slideshow, but their intimacy allow them to stand alone, too.
For example, The Guardian did a simple photo story about an Elmo impersonator who performs in New York City’s Times Square. The pictures show how a man named Jorge makes a living by dressing as Elmo and taking pictures with tourists.
And, The Washington Post published an immersive story about the life of a rural Missouri farmer, with pictures detailing hard work and devotion to his small farm.
Some stories show a process. For example, in March 2013 the Chicago Tribune produced a picture explainer about the production process of how marshmallow peeps. This photo story has a beginning, middle and end, which are identifiable characteristics of pictures stories.
Meg Theno, senior photo editor at the Chicago Tribune, says building a photo story doesn’t mean you “treat it like a scrapbook.”
“If you’re going to put a picture gallery together, think about like you’re writing a story, you don’t write a paragraph four times,” she said.