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Photo Essay - John Roe ARPS

Visual Vocabulary of Photographs

The dominant form in documentary photography is the photo essay or picture story in which a sequence or series of photographs are strung together (sometimes with a complimentary text) to ‘tell’ the story. Photo-essays can take many forms but underpinning each, should be a clear understanding of what the ‘story’ is about - that is, what is being said and knowledge about how pictures work.

Anthropologists, photographers and others who use photography to observe and comment on social, cultural, environmental or biological phenomena require skills in seeing, analysis and visualisation. In other words, an understanding of the visual vocabulary of photographs, how they work and what they can say. In developing the photo-essay emphasis is placed on information that is conveyed simultaneously in both the individual image and in the relationships between pictures and how they can be used to ‘tell’ the story - that is how they work collectively and communicate a range of information.

Analysis Analysis of picture stories shows us that there are a limited number of fundamental picture types used in the construction of a visual story, these are:

1. The person at work picture

2. The relationship picture

3. The establishing picture

4. The detail

5. The portrait

Picture types Depending on the subject matter of the picture story, some or all of these pictures will be used and the balance of picture types employed will be determined by both the subject matter and the particular slant, which the photographer takes. For example a picture story with a landscape subject may not use pictures of people at work or portraits.

In making a picture story you should

i) Be clear what the story is about.

ii) Consider your viewpoint as observer/commentator.

iii) Prepare a shooting script or scheme of observation. Think carefully about what each picture is saying.


Introduce pace into your story by shooting a variety of horizontal pictures, verticals, close ups,

middle distance and long shots.

v) Keep notes about what you photograph, who, what, where, when, why?

vi) Consider carefully the complementary relationship between image and text in writing your

captions or other texts.


This photograph should show clearly

A. Who the person is - we should be able to recognise them or their trade.

b. What they are doing.

c. How they are doing it.

Practice this photograph as it is useful in bringing you into close contact with people and introduces you to the problems of communicating specific information through the photograph. While it is recognised that some jobs require two people to perform and yet others are ‘service’ type jobs (such as shopkeeper or waitress) in which a second person is clearly essential to an understanding of the job being performed - In the first instance you should try to avoid these situations. Begin by photographing a single person at work as you will find this more manageable and will be able to carefully observe what they are doing and how they do the job.


Here are a few useful tips, which will help you to understand what you are trying to do and assist in the making of clear and succinct images. <!--[endif]-->

i) Select a subject, which interests you, explain that you will be taking a lot of photographs. It is easier to gain cooperation if you show that you are genuinely interested in your subject and their


ii) Don’t rush into shooting pictures. Observe for a short time, talking to your subject and asking

questions will help put you both at ease and help you understand what is important to show in your


iii) Move around the subject - You may be able to see the job and how it is done more clearly from

another perspective.

iv) Move in close - Try to fill the frame not forgetting that you may also need to show the tools,

machine or the object being worked on in order to explain the job.

v) Shoot a number of frames - Try both horizontal and vertical compositions. Importantly, be

critical of your own efforts. Can you better it? Observe through the viewfinder the subtle changes, which can either clarify things or obscure them. Shoot some more frames!


This photograph must show clearly

A. What is taking place between them?

b. What the nature of the relationship is.

Is the relationship one of love or hate, passion or just affectionate, supportive or one of rejection, teaching or learning, superior or inferior?

Practising this picture will build on the skills acquired through the ‘person at work’ picture and will acquaint you with the problems of photographing ‘intimate’ occasions; in approaching and gaining the cooperation, trust and confidence of your subjects. It also introduces you to the skills necessary to be able to enter the personal and private territory of other people with a minimum of fuss and without upsetting your subject or disturbing what is taking place.


i) In the first instance, select a simple subject such as a conversation between two people or a parent and child relationship.

ii) In the first instance try to avoid transient situations such as fleeting moments on the street, You

will find it easier to be inconspicuous in place where there is a lot going on or at an organised event.

iii) Explain to your subject what you are doing and ask for their cooperation in disregarding your


iv) Avoid telephoto lenses, on a Digital SLR try using a 35mm lens.

v) Move in close enough to fill the frame but be aware of invading your subject’s personal space.

vi) Watch for expressive body signals such as posture, physical gestures, touch eye contact and

facial expressions.

vii) Shoot a lot of frames remember that many of the expressive signs that will indicate the nature of the relationship are fleeting moments. Identifying them and capturing them on film is difficult and requires a great deal of concentrated effort and many repeated attempts.


The establishing picture is an important element in the picture story because it serves to define the context in which the other pictures have been located. It describes where, and sometimes when the event took place. It can also describe mood and much other information such as how large the event is, how many people are involved, the weather, etc. etc. The establishing picture summarises all this information and provides the context in which the other photographs in the picture story or essay can be understood. It can also function, as in image in its own right - landscape photographs are an example.



Fix a clear picture in your mind of what the story is about and even the other photographs that

might be required ‘to tell the story.’ In this way, you will gain a clearer understanding of the kind of

establishing picture you will need to ‘locate’ them.

ii) While the establishing picture is essentially a wide shot, that is a general view - Remember that

the distance at which you photograph it will in the main be determined by the subject and how close the other pictures are in your story, e.g. If a story consisted in the main of close-up portraits, then

the establishing picture might well be a close to middle distance shot.

iii) Remember that the establishing picture must also work, as a photograph in its own right - You

will want to make more than just a ‘general view’ of the scene. Attention should be paid to the geometry or composition and the mood of the picture and you should consider how these relate to the content of die photograph.


A very useful picture for recording specific information or detail it also enables you to easily introduce a sense of pace into the picture story. It is also an opportunity to explore the formal or graphic nature of picture making. However, if this picture is to be relevant you will need to know your subject thoroughly and to be acutely observant, considering the importance of objects such as tools, dress, decoration or the order of things.


i) Are you close enough? Fill the frame.

ii) Is there enough light to give you adequate depth of field?

iii) Can you rearrange the light to better display the subject?

iv) Explore the Geometry of the picture.

v) Single object or collections of objects?


An extremely useful picture in conveying a sense of identity and humanity to your story it also aids the viewer to identify with the subject. In stories about people it is often an essential element and may be approached either informally or as a formal posed individual or group portrait. It is often allied with the detail. It is often treated minimally as a simple head and shoulders but has the potential to express a strong sense of the personality of the subject by making maximum use of expression, mood, lighting and location. It can be a demanding picture to make because of the need for intimate interaction with the subject and the call on your technical skills.

Every new subject will make different demands on you and you will find it helpful to develop a simple and consistent technical approach so that you know what you are doing and inspire

confidence, even though you may panicking inside.


i) Get to know something about your subject, their interests, job, family or achievements etc. So you have something to talk about. It will put them at their ease and make your job easier, while also giving you time to think about how to organise the pictures.

ii) Know your equipment and practice simple set ups, camera position, lighting etc in advance.

iii) Check all equipment, film, batteries etc before you go to the job.

iv) Explore the location for potential picture opportunities and talk with your subject about your

ideas so they feel involved - You never know they might come up with a better suggestion.

v) Shoot lots of pictures as you are bound to have your fair share of closed eyes, open mouths and other gormless expressions.

vi) Shoot a variety of horizontals, verticals AND close-Ups


Keep full records about each subject so you can provide essential caption information such as names, location, date, and what is going on in the pictures.

Remember the questions WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY & HOW? Detailing these should provide enough basic information to support your pictures. File it with the pictures.

And one last important note - Remember you are trying to make the most eloquent (and elegant) statement about you subject - If the pictures are not working, or you foul up on something, be prepared to go back and do it again.


Most people, at some time in life, find themselves recording and preserving significant experiences. These acts - compiling or interpreting a family photo album, discovering and writing down the history of a church or a town, photographing a landscape in transition or a neighbourhood in crisis, or even snapping photos at a graduation - range broadly, yet they share one important trait: the familiar impulse to document.

Our individual motives may vary. We may want to preserve something for posterity, to acknowledge an accomplishment, to promote change, but always as we document we engage in something larger than ourselves, something beyond the confines of our singular lives. This connection is the beginning of understanding how documentary work fits naturally with community life. Documentary work is closely connected to remembering, creating, and telling life stories and experiences. Most of us share a need to recall and reconsider local memory, to revisit and renew our connection to place. Out of shared telling and remembering grow identity, connection, and pride, binding people to a place and to one another. These ties form the basis of community life:

individual involvement in schools, churches, civic organisations, and public causes and events.

The documentary process, and sharing the results of that work, provides a way for us to acknowledge and shape community life as we advance our understanding of these connections and how they inform our work in the present.

The documentary arts - in the form of photographs, life stories, films, radio programs, and narrative writing - can alter how we see the world and our role in it. By giving shape and voice to community experiences, Documentary work can influence broader conversations about change, preserve local history, prompt new ideas, create better understanding among different parts of the community, and clarify common goals for the future. One example is the indivisible project.

Putting Documentary Work to Work

The documentary arts are powerful tools for local organisations that wish to explore their role in the communities they serve. A documentary project, at its best, can inspire an organisation or individual to gain new perspectives and knowledge about important issues in the community. This can happen when those doing the documentation succeed in capturing and representing multiple perspectives, in uncovering the many different stories of community commitment and action, and in giving voice to ideas and experiences that often remain unrecognised.

Some principles to remember

• Documentary work can shine a spotlight on untold stories of local people and their contributions to the places where they live. When you showcase a grassroots organisation, you make its work more visible and more interesting by showing the creativity, energy, and richness of individual involvement.

• A documentary project can bring people together and gets them talking. It can challenge

grassroots organisations to fully explore and understand the neighbours and neighbourhoods their work targets. Documentary work encourages community members to ask questions and talk frankly about their community, their work, the challenges they face, and their feelings and frustrations.

Planning Your Project

Planning is key to the success of any documentary project. The planning process is simply a series of decisions an organisation makes about the project’s focus, goals, budget, and timetable.

What issue, accomplishment, dilemma, or set of experiences are you interested in learning more about through documentary work? Your project’s focus should be specific enough that you can communicate it easily to a wide array of people, from schoolchildren to neighbours, from elected officials to potential sponsors or project funders. Write a short statement outlining the key themes of your project. For example, this project will document efforts made by staff and volunteers of the Village of Arts and Humanities to revitalise and rebuild their neighbourhood. After you have decided on a project focus your statement, consider these kinds of questions: How is the Village of Arts and Humanities defined? What do we mean by revitalising? Have these efforts taken place over a twenty-year period or just recently? Arriving at a clear understanding of the project’s focus will help you develop a carefully constructed plan to reach your goals.


Your goals can be very simple: It’s good to keep in mind that making your project too broad or too

ambitious could dilute its impact. Work to narrow your scope by asking yourself why you’re doing this project and what you hope to accomplish. Who is the audience you hope to reach? It is also important to think about how you will measure the project’s ability to meet its goals. If you decide to use photography and personal stories to raise awareness about the need for better low-income housing, how will you know if you have reached this goal? Will your efforts result in higher attendance at public forums, greater participation in city planning efforts, or increased? development of quality affordable homes? Thinking about what you hope to accomplish from the start can help you develop meaningful strategies for a successful project.

Making Photographs

• You can set up appointments to photograph people and places related to your project or use the

camera to record specific events. You should also take a camera with you wherever you go for a set

period of time to record both everyday and unexpected events and encounters. Take notes about who/what/where you photograph - Especially the correct spelling of names and places. It is often difficult to go back and get this information later.

• It is always a good idea to ask permission before you photograph people, especially if you think

they will be identifiable in the photograph. While some photographers simply seek verbal approval, others try to obtain written consent from everyone they photograph. Your photographs should only be used within the context of the project. You will need special permission from the subject to use his or her picture for other purposes. Write up a release form that explains the project and what you intend to do with the photographs you take.

• Think about content and composition as you look through the viewfinder. These concerns are

related - How you choose to compose an image can affect its meaning. When composing a photograph, consider framing, angle, and light. Experiment with these techniques to create images that illustrate your ideas.

Framing involves choosing what to include or leave out of a picture. How you frame an image will depend on the idea or feeling you hope to communicate and on your aesthetic sensibilities. To make a portrait, a photographer might zoom in on the subject’s face or back up and show the same person in a work environment.

The angle from which the photograph is taken can affect the viewer’s sense of proportion, scale, and significance. An aerial view of a park provides a vastly different perspective than a view of the same park from the ground.

Lighting can impact both the look and feel of your image. The camera sees in much the same way the eye sees: light bounces off the subject, passes through a lens, and exposes the film. A diffuse light source such as indirect sunlight will illuminate all parts of the subject equally. A focused light source from a single window or a camera flash will illuminate some parts of the subject more than others, creating detail and shadow. Thoughtfully captured shadows, both subtle and stark, can add interest and power to an image.

• Think about how you are representing the person or community group you are photographing. Be

aware of the visual clues and symbols that might narrow and direct the way your image is perceived. If your subject is a farm worker, for example, you could photograph him from the knees down so all one sees is his muddy boots in a field. Or you might decide to make photographs of the farm worker inside his home. Ask yourself how an audience might interpret these photographs of the same person in different settings. Challenge yourself to see and photograph your subjects from a

variety of perspectives.

Thank everyone who has helped with the project, whether by posing for the camera or offering tips on taking better photographs. If you send a note of thanks along with copies of a few photographs, you’ll reaffirm your relationship with the people you’ve photographed.

Working with Your Images

• It’s a good idea to make one set of working prints for the project. These prints are for reference only, and they don’t need to be large. For some projects the use of simple contact sheets may suffice. Once you’ve selected the photographs, you may want to have higher-quality prints made.

• Organise and label negatives and photographs by number and date. Keep a corresponding log that

includes basic information such as the names of the people and places that appear in the photographs. At the beginning of the log, list the name, address, and phone number of the people you photographed, as well as the kind of camera you used.

Project photographs can be edited in several ways, depending upon the way you plan to present them. Some images might work well as part of a photo essay but might not be strong enough to stand alone in an exhibition or on a postcard. How you choose to combine or display images will have an impact on the way an audience understands the photographs. You might sequence images to give a sense of the passage of time, or you might juxtapose two or more images in a way that draws attention to similarities or differences in meaning or composition. Other possibilities include composing diptychs (two images), triptychs (three images), grids, and photomontages.

• Combining photographs with text can also increase their impact on viewers. It is important to add

the voice of your subjects. Asking the people you photograph to respond verbally or in writing to your images can produce important insights into their meaning and importance. You can also write captions for the photographs that include quotes from your subjects, or you can ask your subjects to write their own captions.

The comments section is for you to leave suggestions, ideas and even a description of projects you have done that might interest others. Unfortunately we are unable to answer queries but you might like to visit our workshops page or go onto the RPS forum.