Photographic essays are the visual equivalent of written essays. They tell a story by leading the eye of a viewer around a series of informative images arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The concept is challenging for a photographer because each individual photograph must not only contribute an additional element of the story but also be well composed and artistically satisfying in its own right. A complete essay typically has a clear theme or narrative, and the most powerful examples are likely to evoke an emotional reaction in viewers. Narrative essays tell a story in a sequential manner, each photograph leading the eye to the next stage of an event. Thematic essays may use a variety of images taken at different times, but focus on a particular theme such as poverty, the destruction of the rain forests, or river pollution.
A successful photographic essay should be able to speak for itself - ie stand alone, like a good single image, without the need for explanation in the form of added words or even a title. Words can of course be added but, where this is seen as necessary, a photographer should consider whether the images are sufficiently informative. The inclusion of a wide variety of photographs helps in this respect and should be regarded as essential. The images should include wide-angle and closer shots showing various aspects of the subject matter, and should portray the broader picture or environment, the people involved together with their activities and circumstances, and close-ups revealing important details or emotions.
The overall layout of the essay, and the order in which the images are displayed, may be sequential or non-sequential but must be effective, informative and aesthetically pleasing. There are no rules for the composition of essays and more than there are rules for composing individual photographs, but there are a number of broad guidelines which often lead the author in the right direction. However, always remember that the best results are sometimes achieved by exploring beyond the guidelines.
Most essays feature a lead image deigned to grab the attention of the viewer. As with the cover of a book in a bookshop, it is essential to catch the eye of a passing audience. The chosen image should not only be interesting and powerful in its own right, but also introduce the story told by the essay. having caught the attention of viewers, the next key stage of the essay should be to set the broader scene, perhaps showing the environmental or geographical location of the events.
Within the layout of the essay, try to incorporate pictures of people, and interesting and relevant details of the events. Good pictures of people are always of interest because people are interested in other human beings. capture their situation, problems, environment and emotions wherever possible. Wide-angle portraits are often valuable in this sort of context because they show people close-up but also reveal something of their circumstances and environment. Close-up shots of key details be incorporated, but each shot should have a specific role in the essay. The final images of an essay should summarize events in a way that captures all, or most, of the key elements of the story. Ideally, the final image should be emotionally powerful, hence leaving the viewer with feelings of sympathy, anger or whatever is appropriate.