I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the photo essay. There has been this urge to dig in and do one, but I have come up short on ideas in my current position (Columbia, Mo.) and through the readings for this post (The Picture Essay – Jay and Hurn, and The Great Photographic Essays – Chapnick), I have a better idea of what makes the essay and where to begin the process. Too often as a photographer, and I don’t I’m alone, I emphasize the importance of the single image. I’m not always shooting with story in mind but rather the composition of the one moment in the frame at the given time. Hurn and Jay address this idea in the beginning of their discussion as they transition to the notion of the essay, saying that “We tend to forget this fact, that photographers of merit tend to work on projects involving many pictures, not just on single masterpieces.” To even get started on an essay, they say that we must break it down into a few questions and ask ourselves, 1. Why am I doing this? 2. What interests me? 3. Where, and how, will it be used? In addition, it is important to plan. As we have learned, sometimes too much planning keeps us from seeing what is real or another story to pursue, but knowing what types of images are needed to complete the essay are essential in this case.
One thing I did sort of disagree on is that Hurn said “too many people waste time taking unusable photographs.” I understand that it is important to stay focused on what our story is, but sometime it is worthwhile to notice the beauty of something outside of our story. I think he meant don’t take useless pictures for the essay, but regardless, I will continue to make photos as I see them.
In the Chapnick reading he had some helpful things to say about constructing and completing the essay as well. It reminded me of the dialogue between Hurn and Jay when he said, “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 being made, so that when the work is finished there are no unfilled gaps in the story.” It seems a checklist is one of the most important guiding tools in the essay. I don’t think I have ever made a list of photos or moments that I need when working on a story, but have had a mental idea. That’s not ideal because as I know too well, I often forget those ideas or am distracted by something else. As much as I would like to say don’t plan and just shoot, I think I could really benefit from a little planning, especially in the sense of the essay where certain shots are necessary. Another thing Chapnick said that really hit home was when he talked about the subject matter of an essay. “Great photographic essays do not need complex, bizarre, unusual subject matter. They need not be shot in exotic parts of the world. Almost every conceivable subject that deals with the human experience can serve as the basis for an essay.” This is something that I and probably a lot of others struggle with, especially in a town like Columbia, Mo. where there are journalists looking for a fresh story everywhere you go. It’s really easy to feel defeated and that there are “no good stories left in this town.” In this sense though, you just need to take a world, national, or state issue and break it down to how it affects your community (that being greater Boone County, too). I think this idea helps me to realize what good subject matter is, and how to find it, though it might not be easy.