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Photo Essay Ideas For Journalism

What is the difference between a photo essay and a photo project?  In “15 Creative Photography Project Ideas to Get You Shooting,” Jim Harmer presents a number of varied photography project ideas to help you find inspiration. Photo projects offer a great way to try something new and can help you get out of a rut. Suppose, though, that you’re not in a rut and don’t necessarily need inspiration but are rather looking for a project that relates to a special interest or one that you want to focus your attention on. This is where photo essays can come in.

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A photographic essay is a set or series of photographs that are intended to tell a story or evoke a series of emotions in the viewer. It allows the photographer to tell more than what is possible with a single image. Essays can range from purely photographic (no text) to photographs with captions, small texts or full text essays accompanying them. Photo essays are typically either thematic (addressing a specific topic or issue) or narrative (tells a story, usually in chronological sequence).

Following are ten photo essays ideas to consider…

Photo Essay #1: Document a Local Event. The town I live in has an annual bicycle classic. To turn this into a photo essay, one could arrive early to catch the cyclists and sponsors as they are preparing, then photograph the cyclists riding throughout the day, and finish with some shots of tents coming down and everyone heading home.

Photo Essay #2: Exhibition. Find an exhibition going on at a nearby gallery or museum. Not only photograph the pieces themselves but also those in attendance—how they are interacting with the pieces and among themselves. If you can, attend the reception so you can also capture the artist or artists whose work is on display or the curators of the exhibit.

Photo Essay #3: Transformation (Short-term). For this photo essay, find a subject that is undergoing a short-term transformation. This could include a group of men growing mustaches to celebrate Movember or a stray dog brought in to a shelter that is groomed and adopted. This sort of essay should take no longer than a month or so to tell its story.

Photo Essay #4: Transformation (Long-term). Think pregnancy, from the baby bump through to birth and maybe even the first birthday, or following a returning soldier and their transformation back to civilian life. This project should last months and could be worked around other projects being completed at the same time.

Photo Essay #5: A Day in the Life. For this essay, find someone such as a doctor, lawyer, firefighter, or police officer willing to let you follow him or her for a day, both behind the scenes and during their job. If there are times when photos cannot be taken, then you can use the text option for a photo essay and supplement your photos with some captions or short written passages.

Photo Essay #6: Raise Awareness. Find a local charity and document their daily operations, their personnel, and who or what they are helping. Give a visual sense of what they are trying to accomplish and why it is important.

Photo Essay #7: Turn a Day Out into Reportage. Find a location one would normally go to for a day out but treat this day out more as reportage—photograph behind the scenes shots, interview workers and customers. Locations could include amusement parks, nature preserves, or movie theaters.

Photo Essay #8: Give Meaning to Street Photography. Hit the streets and document the faces of the homeless or the lives of streetwalkers. Try to go deeper than the surface and look for what passersby tend to ignore.

Photo Essay #9: Neighbors. Find a neighborhood and, after photographing the homes, ask to photograph those inside the homes. You could photograph them inside their homes or just in their doorways, depending upon what you want the focus to be on—the interiors or the individuals within those interiors.

Photo Essay #10: Education. Find a school and photograph its students, teachers, and classrooms. Show the students studying and playing and the teachers teaching and on break. Photograph the computer labs and technology if it is a more affluent school or focus on what the teachers make do with if it is a less affluent school. For a longer essay, you could compare and contrast a rural school to a city school.

About the Author

Jeremiah Gilbert


Jeremiah Gilbert is a college professor, photographer, and avid traveler. His first love is landscape photography, though he also enjoys urban exploration and street photography. Through his work with models, both in studio and on location, he has been internationally published in both digital and print publications. His blog, photo portfolio, and travel tales can be found at www.jeremiahgilbert.com.

Betsy Sergeant
Abraham Lincoln High School
San Francisco, Calif.

Lesson Title: Making Photo Essays Easy

Overview and Rationale:

This lesson is divided into two parts. Part I is a creative exercise to get students to generate ideas about what makes a good story and a photograph. Part II requires student to then tell a story through photographs, or to create a photo essay.

Goals for understanding:

  • Students will recognize the qualities of a strong photograph.
  • Students will tell a story through powerful photographs.

Resources and Materials:

  • Newspapers and/or magazines
  • Old photographs
  • Cameras
  • Poster board or PowerPoint

Overview and Timeline:

This two-part lesson is designed so that each part could stand on its own. Allotted time will depend on camera availability and class time. Suggested time is 4-5 50 minute class periods.


Part I

Day 1

Activity 1 (10 minutes):

Before you begin with photos, take the time to help students remember the elements of good story in literature, as well as in journalism. Strong stories include the following elements:

  • Exposition
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Theme
  • Characters
  • Protagonist
  • Antagonist
  • Rising Action
  • Climax
  • Resolution
  • Irony
  • Foreshadowing
  • Flashback

Activity 2 (30-45 minutes):

  • Using already published material, have groups of 4 students collect 10 or so photos and assemble them into a story. The results may be silly or serious; the object here is to have students create the story from photos they already have. The students will fix the photos to a poster board according to the story they created.

Activity 3 (15 minutes):

  • Their classmates will then try to figure out what story the photos are telling. The group will then share the story they came up with and they will discuss why they chose the photos they did. Save the presented stories for the next session.

Day 2

  • Activity 1 (30 minutes):
    • Students identify the strongest photos in each story from previous day. In their groups they will generate a list of what they believe makes a good photo. This should get students thinking about:
      • angles
      • Perspective
      • Composition
      • framing
      • lighting
      • emotions
      • details
    • Student will also discuss the following:
      • How they were limited by working with photos that already exist?
      • What photos had they wished were available?
      • Was their story successful?
      • Did it catch attention? Why or why not?
      • Did the photos represent what was really happening in their stories?
  • Activity 2 (20 minutes)
    • Students will then generate lists of what they think constitutes a good Selection or series of photos. This will be the spring board for telling them about effective photo essay elements, such as:
      • varied perspectives
      • varied distances
      • angles
      • changes in lighting
      • Elements of the story that are not obvious to the reader.
      • Focusing on different people involved
      • Rule of thirds
      • Variety of sizes and shapes of photos
      • Dominant photographs
    • Find some examples of photo essays to share with the class. One example is:http://www.motherjones.com/
    • To find others, use Google to search for “photo essays”. Be sure to point out examples of the above topics.


Day 3

  • Activity 1 (one class period and homework)
    • Here begins the photo essay assignment. Students will choose a story to cover using only photos. They must produce at least 10 photos, and the only restrictions are that they cannot use ANY words to tell a story. (You can add cut-lines to the assignment later.) Depending on availability of cameras, you may choose to have teams of students. Give them a deadline, and specify how you want the photos presented. Some ideas include:
    • Have students compile photos in a PowerPoint slideshow
    • Have students fix photos to poster board

Day 4

  • Activity 1
    • Let students display their photo essays around the room. Let the class circulate to try to figure out the story for each collection of photographs. Students will write brief paragraphs about each photo essay. They will also write questions they feel are left unanswered by the photo essay. Allow the class time to share their findings.

Day 5

  • Activity 1
    • Each group will discuss their photo essay with the class. Students should be prepared to explain their choices and motivations behind the photos included. They will also note questions and feed back from the class.

Follow-up lessons:


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