A narrative photo essay can have as its subject almost anything the author cares to choose. However, it is certainly true that the best results are obtained when the author selects a subject about which he or she cares passionately. It is interest in the central subject that keeps the mind focused and provides the energy and motivation to pursue a subject just a little further. Subjects can be chosen from everyday domestic life, and feature a birthday, wedding anniversary, graduation etc. However a subject can be much more demanding, for instance highlighting a current social issue such as drug abuse, homelessness or the care of the elderly.
Multiple photographs have the power to engage viewers in a way that a single image may not. A narrative sequence of images has the potential to explain or highlight the complexities of an issue in sufficient detail that viewers understand why the author feels strongly about the subject. Powerful stories centre around human emotions such as anger, joy or fear and, where present, these should be drawn out and highlighted in an honest and straighforward manner. If emotions are present, then reporting them is valid and valuable, however strong feelings should not be exaggerated or manipulated for dramatic effect.
Choosing a subject may not be easy, although difficulty at this early stage may indicate that the author is driven by the desire to produce a photo essay rather than by a subject about which he or she cares deeply. Start by having a private brainstorming session, or even share the session with family or friends. Write down all the ideas however silly or inappropriate they may sound. Then go through the list of suggestions and ask whether any of them represent the seed of an idea. Do any of the ideas appeal to you? Do you have the resources and opportunity to attempt a particular subject? Is there a cost involved? Would you need help? Who is the essay intended for? Is the proposed issue of interest in your community or to your target medium?
Having produced a short list of two or three ideas, do some research and find out whether the project is practicable. Also find our whether any local organizations, charities etc might be interested in the project. Charities sometimes have ongoing projects that they would like documented. Finally, become familiar with what others have done in the same field of endeavour. You do not want to duplicate what has already been done, but the work of others may also provide guidance for what works and what does not. When undertaking research, be sure to get to the real story - the heart of the issue involved. Is there some tragedy or injustice that should have been addressed. Is there a scream for help from an individual or a group of people who are being ignored by society?
Before trying to capture images for an essay make sure adequate planning is undertaken. Photographers attempting an essay for the first time might be well advised to create a written plan of shots even if this is not strictly followed at a later stage. Each shot should have not only a defined subject, but also a purpose and place in the essay as a whole. A plan of this sort helps to define the scope and overall direction of the work.
Be prepared to spend some time completing a photo essay. In general, it is not possible to obtain all the require images and material in one session. It may be necessary to return time and time again before all the planned aspects of a subject are captured. Just keep adding material, and improving the quality of material already acquired, until you are spoiled for choice. Then weed out the weaker items to raise the overall quality of the final essay.