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Photo Essay Project

Categories: Projects No Comments

Yesterday we talked briefley about our new assignment – and the concept of photojournalism.  This is a section of photography that is one of the most important and dear things to my heart, because it is photojournalism that first brought the idea of photography into my mind as a high school student.  I was immediately influenced by photographers like W. Eugene Smith, Robert Capa, Steve McCurry, etc.

So what I’ve done to get you thinking about Photojournalism and the idea of a photo essay is compiled a series of links and examples.  If you’re thinking of getting started on this project over break, make sure you go through all of this, as I do’t think we have had the proper amount of time for me to truly introduce the assignment.

Anyway, here are some links that are either about Photo Essays, or are pages that have examples of Photo Essays.  They’re pretty easy to find, so do some of your own research, too.

First off, here is a link to Wikipedia’s definition of a Photo-Essay.  Actually, it’s pretty weak.

One of the most famous photojournalist is W. Eugene Smith, who photographed many amazing projects in his lifetime.  One of his notable (and considered one of the greatest photo essays of all time), is his “Spanish Village,” a chronicle of life under the rule of a dictator in 1950’s Spain. He also did a wonderful series of images on Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who was a doctor and missionary in Africa. His series on the city of Pittsburgh is also particularly famous as well.


Another, more modern photojournalist is James Nachtwey.  Widely considered one of the greatest living photographers, he has actually had a full-length feature documentary produced about him called “War Photographer.” (It’s an incredible movie.)  One of his most notible sets of photos is from September 11, 2001, which he was in NYC by chance, and ran to the World Trade Center when he heard of the attacks. When you click on that link, make sure you read his incredible story, and his thoughts on photography and his emotions about the events.  Nachtwey is one of the most introspective photographers I’ve ever read, and his insights are really interesting.

Here is a TED talk that Nachtwey did several years ago, where he talks about his images.  At the beginning it warns you that there are some graphic images of violence in the presentation. If you feel like you don’t want to watch, then don’t feel the need to, but I think the images – and his stories, are really important.


My most favorite photographer is Sebastiao Salgado.  Widely regarded as the greatest living photographer by many (not just myself), he has spent his entire life photographing large photo essays in the 3rd world.  One of his first essays was called “Workers,” where he documented the lives of those whose manual labor provides the western world with the goods that it generally takes for granted (tea, coffee, steel, etc.)  Later on he photographed another essay called “Migrations,” where he photographed people who were forced to leave the homes and become refugess because of man-made crises.  Salgado’s photographs have often been criticicized for being too beautiful, (which, incidentally, was a citicism level at Spielberg for Schindler’s List). I feel that this is actually an important debate, and one that will never be decided, but with such powerful work, the issue of “beauty” is an important one to think about.


And finally, here is the Photography page at  It has an amazing series of Photo Essays that I think you should look at.  Look at how the photographer covered the different parts of each event or subject.  Pay attanetion to how you understand what’s going on because of how they covered the subject.  Look at how they used different kinds of shots, from close-ups to wide-angles, to make sure that you got a feeling of what was happening at that time.

So, as we take some time off this week for break, I want to you thinking about Photography itself, and how photographers can use their images to educate and inform people.  Now, think about what kind of a story that you might want to show.  And while I have just shown you 3 major photographers who were running all around the world, do not feel the pressure of that.  Go back and look at the video of W. Eugene Smith again, and look at his smaller Essays, like the one on Albert Schweitzer.  The idea of using a photo essay to provide the world with an intricate portrait of an amazing person is one that I think is very attainable.  Just as is Smith’s idea of providing a portrait of a city, as he did in his essay of Pittsburgh.  Think about those kinds of idea, while also studying how Nachtwey and Salgado used their skills to also teall stories, and then think of something that you would like to photograph and share with the world.

I also have a few tips about choosing a subject for this project:

  1. Most importantly, make sure you choose someone who is available on a regular basis, as you will probably need to do some reshoots.  In other words, don’t photograph soeone who is only going to be in town for one weekend.  Photograph someone who is willing to help you out, too.  Make sure that they are excited about your project, or else when you try to do reshoots, you may find that they are “unavailable.”  Accessibilty and willingness are HUGE benefits for a subject, especially as you are just learning right now, and a one-and-done kind of a situation would not be a wise choice for you.
  2. Permission is always a REALLY important part of photography.  If your subject is under the age of 18, you should talk to their parent/guardian. This is especially important for any child who is not a good friend/ in high school.
  3. Don’t be putting yourself in a bad position. There are so many ways that photographers can put themselves in bad positions:  That can be physically, like shooting on railroad tracks, or hanging off a cliff, etc.  It can also be with people, where a photographer promises people things they can’t deliver (like photographs, etc.) and then ruins a relationship because of expectations.  That sounds really dramatic, but it happens fairly often. If you need to, have a friend come along as your “assistant” – I’ve known many a photographer to get themselves in a bad place just because they were alone.  More on that later in class, but it’s always good to learn when to trust your instincts – they’re usually right.

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