Do a quick search on google about photo essays and one thing will become annoyingly clear; photo-essay is a relative term. Call it a photo-story, photojournalism, photo-essay, photo-series, or what have you, there is no generalized format to work with other than “take images and put them in an order”. Though there are many examples of photo essays and pages of advice from photographers both amateur and professional, it is stupid hard to find someone with anything definitive to say on the topic. It’s not that the advice isn’t helpful, or that they haven’t given me any good ideas for my photo essay, it’s just filled with cliche phrases like: “make your topic something in which you find interest” (that’s a direct quote by the way). One photographer summed up the problem with photo essays very succinctly: “In short, it can be almost anything you want it to be. Which is where I struggle most–when the options are limitless.” A photo essay can literally be about anything you want it to be. If you were to strip it down to its bare bones a photo essay would only have two requirements: 1. a purpose 2. photos. The rest is entirely up to you. The images can have captions or quotes beneath, they can have essays describing them or nothing at all. There can be two images or five hundred. When it comes to creating a photo essay your options are limitless, and there’s nothing worse than a blank slate.
Nothing cures a bad case of writers (or photographers?) block like a good dose of inspiration. Although there are thousands of photo essays by students and photographers, from middle school students to professional photographers, documenting exactly what you would expect photo essays to document: environmental and social causes, urban decay and reclamation, photos that show the “real” you, etc. these are hardly inspirational. It can be hard to find photo essays that really succeed in presenting information in a unique and revealing way. When well done and created with passions these “generic” essays can still be very intriguing and stimulating but i want to create something that speaks in a voice that only i can create, that can’t be found a thousand other times in the depths of google. I want to create the type of photo essay that inspires others to think about and explore my topic and ideas. In order to do this i needed to find inspiration that was worthy of my lofty goals. And i totally found it.
The first photo essay i will share with you not only exposes a unique subset of Moroccan culture, but entrances me with its vibrant colors, mysterious subjects, and commanding image. Kesh Angels is a photo-essay by Hassan Hajjaj, exploring the perceptions of Arabic and Western culture in juxtaposition. I think that this photo essay is both beautiful and poignant. I love the ideas that it plays with and how it presents them. I think that the essay is thought-provoking and intriguing. I want to know more about the girls and their culture, i even want to share in and participate in that culture. I think that if Hajjaj had used captions in a more purposeful manner that the photo essay could be even more powerful. Although the image should speak for itself i like the idea of captions adding more to the conversation and asking questions of the image and the reader.
The next photo essay that i absolutely loved was a piece capturing snipers in their nests. I could not find a title for the photo essay, but it was photographed by Simon Menner. I like this essay because it is just as intriguing as the Kesh Angel essay, but in an entirely different way. Instead of popping with color and pushing the subject to the forefront, the reader has to explore and probe the image for the subject. It becomes a sort of game, and you start to have fun playing “find the sniper” until you remember that these men are not hiding for fun and the implication of these images hits you. I think that this essays opens up a discussion involving warfare, tactics, and morality. I also think that the essay is intriguing on a simple factual level. It is interesting to see how and where a snipe camouflages himself, and it’s scary how often you’re wrong about where he’s hiding. I think that it’s worth noting that photo essays could be really great tools for relaying information in a way that makes the reader curious and willing to explore. Like some sort of photo-essay scavenger hunt, you could send readers hunting for more information, images, or related content in order to understand the full story behind the images.
Humanae is such a gorgeous and unique idea that i just had to include it in my list of photo essays. The project is simple and innocuous enough. Photograph a person and match their skin tone to the appropriate Pantone hue. Over the years the photographer has created a vast database of images. Hundreds of people, catalogued, color-coded, and placed on her Tumblr. Viewed on their own the images have marginal impact, but when viewed all together you can see the huge amount of variation and detail in the color of our skin tones. And this is what Angelica Dass is really getting at with her project. It is a commentary on how we define skin color and how we catalogue and segregate ourselves. What your tax forms or college applications would say is “White” is actually a range of pink, to alabaster, to orange. I think that this photo essay is astounding for it’s brilliant combination of simplicity and complexity. The photos are straight-forward and the purpose is easy to understand. When looking at the image the eye is immediately drawn to the subject and then to the background, color matched to a well-lit pixel of cheek skin. The complexity comes from what the reader chooses to bring to the project. Easily dismissed as a quirky gimmick, this essay speaks to structure and function of society at a fundamental level. It approaches the topic in such an unexpected manner that the reader has a hard time bring prejudices and pre-conceived notions along for the ride.
Although i’m sure that i could find more photo-essays that i would love to share (and i have (pt. II, pt. III, pt. IV), i’d rather take a moment to discuss what all this marvelous inspiration means for me, myself, and my essay. I know that i want my images to be impactful, to punch the reader in the face with either pure awesomeness, or intense curiosity. I want my images to be collective, to have a contiguous theme, and to share visual elements to tie them together. I know that i want to make my captions work for me. Most essays seem to simply write a sentence or two of description beneath the image, and i feel like captions can and should do more for the photographer/author and reader. I also know that i want to do more than recreate another cliche. Although i still haven’t decided what my UGP will really be about (beyond the vague statement of my touchstone beliefs on education), i know that i don’t want it to be re-creatable. I want it to be a unique vision and essay that only i could imagine and make manifest.
I’m still excited to see where this goes,
Bonus Content: if you want to see the most ridiculous and amazing photo-essay ever click HERE