Multimedia Photo Essays

In preparation for teaching some NGOs in Iraq how to tell their stories through multimedia photo essays, I’ve been visiting many incredible sites that are the home to some amazing photo essays. I want to link them for you in this post. If you are a photographer and interested in creating something similar to these; analyze them, look at how they start, what makes up the main body of work, how do they end? I think you’ll find some amazing conclusions. I think you’ll see that the old concept that every photo essay has an establishing shot, a medium shot, a detail shot and a conclusion has to be taken with a grain of salt. All these elements are in the story, no doubt. But the first shot may not always be a traditional tell all, establishing shot. These days when I look at a New York Times essay often the first shot is what I would call “The hook shot”.  It is a shot that grabs the viewer, entices them, draws them into the story. It could very well be the best shot of the essay. It might be the establishing shot that sets the stage, but it will be so compelling of a shot that the viewer is drawn in and can’t leave. The other main factor in a photo essay is a given, but not always adhered to by novices, that is every shot must be good enough to stand alone. Every shot! There should never be a shot put into the essay that is simply a placeholder or a fill. Each and every image needs to be strong. In fact, the stronger the better.

Ideally the essay needs a plot arc like a good book; background, details, the tension and paradoxes and the conclusion. You will find this in every story listed below.

A photo essay can run from anywhere from five photos to 35 photos or more. There are no hard and fast rules how many photos you need. What you need is enough photographs to tell your story and make your point. Make sure you know your story. Don’t run down rabbit trails with photos like a bad story teller does with words. Too many images get complicated and you risk loosing your viewer to boredom.

One of the things that excites me about where the photo essays is going, is the advent of audio beds. It can be something as simple as random ambient sounds; chickens clucking, car horns honking, footsteps and voices in the background. But often it is audio of the subject of this photo essay adding depth to their story. Another trend, but I’m not prepared to venture into quite yet, is the inclusion of video into the essay. The best examples of this are found at  Brian Storm has made a home for the best multimedia in the world. It is quite common for one of the videos hosted by to win an award. One of the most current is the photo essay entitled “The Rape of a Nation“, by Marcus Bleasdale, documenting the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which is said to be the deadliest war in the world today. An estimated 5.4 million people have died since 1998, the largest death toll since the Second World War, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Bleasdale just won the The Anthropographia Award for Photography and Human Rights.

One of the best over all examples of audio blended together with photographs is the series being done by Todd Heisler and produced by Sarah Kramer for the New York Times entitled “One in 8 Million“.  It is filled with brilliant images of Pulitzer Prize winner Todd Heisler, all supported by engaging audio and ambient sounds through out the shows. The shows are short, each averaging  no longer than 3 mins. The series simply tells the stories of people picked out of the crowd of New York’s 8 million people. Each image is an amazing photo that can stand on its own. In 2006 Heisler won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for “Final Salute,” a series of photographs, taken over the course of a year, profiling the funerals of Marines who died in the war. Heisler’s Powerful photographs combined with engaging audio makes One in 8 million unforgettable and a must-see.

Gojra, Korian, Pakistan attacks on Christian villages from gary s chapman on Vimeo.

There are a lot of other site that highlight this new and developing trend in multimedia. Here is a short list:, Magnum In Motion, The Back Snapper, and Vewd.)  The last site I want to cover is a friend of mine, Gary S. Chapman. Gary works freelance and many of his clients are Christian aide workers. You must visit his website and check out his multimedia work on Vimeo. Gary takes the tacked of not using a simple player like some of us. He mixes his images and video in Final Cut Studio to give an engaging mix of video effects, video frames and still images for something closer to a Mediastorm production. Gary’s shows are short and to the point yet very moving.

If you are like me and find that this is a genre that you really enjoy and are finding yourself drawn to with every click of your shutter, then spend some time lurking about the sites listed above. Then join me in creating compelling stories.

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In photography's equivalent of the after-life, "no one can hear you scream."

At least let's hope that's the case because, if not, W. Eugene Smith -- the 20th century's master of the photo story -- would be creating a deafening noise. Why? He'd undoubtedly be lamenting having missed the arrival of the Web and its almost unlimited storytelling possibilities.

Imagine his seminal work -- "Nurse Midwife Delivering Baby," "Pittsburgh," "Minamata" -- all with a narrative audio backend. This would not be storytelling squared; but storytelling raised to infinity and beyond.

But, alas, Smith is gone and some of today's modern photographers struggle in the master's wake. Smith was the king of the cumulative effect of the photo essay -- a variety of image types that add up to a greater whole. Today's attempts too often rely on unconnected "moments" shot over and over again.

The tools that are now at our disposal make depth and breath of sound and image possible. While many photojournalists are learning audio storytelling or teaming up with those who do, however, still more have jumped straight to video. In doing so, they're bypassing the need for careful image selection matched with a compelling narrative that's told with care and emotion.

While working as the photo editor of The Washington Post, my boss -- Assistant Managing Editor for Photography Joe Elbert -- also identified this as a problem in need of a solution. Elbert, never one to do things the conventional way, used film to teach how images and sound can work well together. (Watching a Clint Eastwood gun fight unfold in a remote graveyard in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" can tell you a lot about photography.)

Elbert's interest was not into creating more"garage Kubricks" -- newly minted cinematographers making masterpieces on their laptops -- but rather to help photographers learn to create a series of pictures that tell stories. When combined with audio, these stories would have a depth, grace and fluidity only made possible by our multiplatform world.

Photo essays are a great way of marrying photos with narrative, and so are audio slideshows. Below, I've listed five types of photos that make for strong photo stories. I've also included related examples from an NPR project about the impact of the stimulus bill on a rural health clinic.

Shot one: The scene setter

Where is your story taking place, and what does it look like? Is it a building, a town, an old southwestern graveyard? Place your audience in the action by taking a photo that shows it all.

This image sets the scene for a story about a health clinic in a rural town. John Poole/NPR

Shot two: The medium shot

Let's start to hone in on the spot of your action; the area of the building or town or graveyard where your subjects are. This shot narrows your story's field of view and should bring you closer in.

This photo shows us where the story's source is. John Poole/NPR

Shot three: The portrait

If things go south and you can only come back with one photo, this should be it. Who is your main subject and what does he or she look like? This can be a traditional head and shoulders shot or a wider shot that shows the person's surroundings.

It's always best to take a variety of portrait shots, as photos of your subject will probably be used more than once in a good audio/visual presentation. Also, if your subject is a thing and not a person, capture it. A great series of electron microscope portraits might be just what you need.

From this portrait, we can see what the source -- & his furry companion -- look like. John Poole/NPR

Shot four: Capturing detail

This is the shot that is often forgotten. Detail shots work especially well for transitions, but can have great storytelling potential all their own. What are the pictures on someone's desk? What books are they reading? What's that post card they have tacked to the wall? All of these things tell us a little bit about our subject and are great elements to have in a photo essay or multimedia presentation.

The detail in this photo helps illustrate the topic of the story. John Poole/NPR

Shot five: Capturing action

Action shots show your subject doing something -- ideally the thing you are reporting on. This is the shot some photographers spend an entire shoot trying to perfect, often amounting to the same shot being taken 30 times. Photos of your subject in action are essential in audio/visual pieces, but they are not the only pictures you need. If you get the other four shots and not this one, you'll still have a solid photo essay.

I advise getting the others in the can and then working on this shot. That way, you have a strong foundation to support your story, and your action shots will be the icing on the cake.

Action shots add movement to your story. John Poole/NPR

Four or five pictures might be enough for a photo essay gallery. For audio slideshows or video, however, you'll want multiple options for each of these photo types.

With any luck, and a bit of talent, you'll end up with a photo essay that would do Smith proud.

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