Thematic photographic essays focus on a particular subject, perhaps something like the development of an area or the consequences of a natural disaster, and images are not normally presented in chronological order. Each picture reveals a different angle or aspect of the chosen subject, the overall objective being to broaden the viewers' understanding. An essay focused upon the development of an area might include images of a green valley prior to the start of the project, and then a variety of images depicting the arrival of heavy earth-moving equipment, the delivery of materials, the construction of access roads and buildings, and the prosperity that follows as people move in and businesses flourish.
The photographer may wish to convey a particular message, perhaps highlighting the destruction of the natural environment or the benefits to local people of new housing and employment opportunities. He or she might also remain entirely objective, providing an honest and balanced view of the project, and leave viewers to decide for themselves the merits of the project.
As with all types of photographic essay, the best results are usually achieved when the author feels strongly about the chosen subject. A good starting point is therefore to make a list of subjects, preferably those with a local relevance and to which some access is practicable, about which the author has passionate personal feelings. There is little point in choosing a subject that is too remote simply because obtaining the relevant material may prove impossible. The author should also take in to account the type of photography that he or she enjoys. A people-orientated focus is clearly unlikely to suit a landscape photographer.
Take time over choosing the right subject, and make the selection only when a number of possibilities have been considered. Brainstorm each potential idea and see what ideas emerge. Scan local newspapers for a brad coverage of what is currently going on in the area, and try to get a feeling for who might be interested in the proposed photo essay. Consider what contacts are available and where and how candid and close-up images of the chosen subject might be obtained.
Once a subject is chosen, prepare a list of well-considered ideas and set out to photograph the various identified aspects of the essay. However, it is also important to remain open, honest and flexible, and to follow a subject wherever it leads. As the work proceeds, unexpected leads may be revealed. These should be followed in an open-minded manner. It may even be the case that the photographic experience changed to some extent the views of the author.