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Photography Question 
Abby Way
BetterPhoto Member Since: 6/27/2005

Shooting a Photo Essay

Hello, everyone!
I am a student in a correspondence-based photography course. For the last exam, it requires me to create a photo essay. It can be any subject, as long as it tells a story or documents an event. (In other words, a bunch of pictures of a tree won't cut it -- pictures of a tree in spring, summer, fall and winter would.)
Does anyone have any ideas or hints on how to go about this?
I had a few ideas for subjects.
1. Documenting a community a short drive away that has many social and drug problems. I thought I could raise awareness and tell a story, sort of a social commentary. My concern is that either it might be slightly dangerous, or I might need photo releases, but be unable to get them due to hostility or a language barrier (it is a Native community, many speak one of two common local Native languages and not much English).
2. I could do the slightly more mundane World of Numbers. I was thinking that I could take macro pictures of number pads in a common household -- for example, the number pad on a microwave, the keyboard, the telephone...
Any suggestions would be most welcome!

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4/5/2006 8:06:46 AM

Mark Feldstein
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/17/2005
  Greetings Abby:

Your comments regarding the nearby community strongly suggest to me that you're trying to talk yourself out of this one. Understand though, that as long as the work isn't published, either in print or electronically, you don't need a release.

Your number 2 isn't slightly more mundane, in all honesty, it strikes me as downright boring, doesn't respond to the call of the original question, and how you'd make an entire essay out of that is beyond me as a photojournalist.

Essentially, your instructor is asking you to come up with a photo story that has a beginning, a middle and an end. You could take your first idea of shooting a story that documents something, but in your own community where the personal risks may be far fewer.

Without answering your question directly, which I feel would be offensive to the learning process, I'll offer you this:
Pick a subject that you have some interest and perhaps a modicum of knowledge in and want more, explore it and use your camera as a sketch pad to document it with a beginning, a middle, and an end, even if the end could be in continuing form, over time. People, places, and/or things. Seewhatimean?
Take it light

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4/5/2006 2:00:16 PM

John P. Sandstedt
BetterPhoto Member Since: 8/8/2001
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  When I took the course, I had three ideas.

Photos of the many station stops along the Northeast Corridor of the NJ Transit Railroad. Had pictures of seven stations - used a model who work different coats/hats at each station.
[This one didn't work out because the results were a study of the model, not the stations. But, the idea was still good - just poorly executed.]

Along one street in New Brunswick, NJ there are 15 churches along a 3/4 mile stretch. Additional churches exist with the City, including two university chapels [Rutgers University.] Lots of inages possible at places of worship. People might be problem.

My essay consisted of 12 images of the World Trade Center taken over a number of years [1979-2003.] It was a before and after the 9/11 attack. Because of the terrific clouds that happened to be available on the days I visited the photo-taking locations, these images were dramatic [both in B&W and Color.] Got got to great critique.

I tend to disagree that Number Pads are mundane. A photo-essay is what you make it. And, if you provide any text [that wasn't in my assignment, but I provided it anyway] you can show why you choice makes sense. If anything, however, I have a problem visualizing a really "knock your socks off" picture of a phone pad.

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4/5/2006 2:24:04 PM

Abby Way
BetterPhoto Member Since: 6/27/2005
  Wow! Thanks so much for your helpful posts, Mark and John! All you experienced pros make the world go 'round for us newbies! :-D
The only problem I can see is that in this tiny little boring town, there are very few stories to be told! ;-)
I'm sure if I look hard enough, though, I will find something interesting. I agree, I'm ditching the number pads idea.
The idea of photographing all the churches (for a small town, I'm amazed at how many there are!) was one that I had actually been thinking of, but I discarded it because of the people. If I return to visit at different times, though, I'd probably be able to get good pictures of each without people.
Thanks so much for your thought-provoking, inspiring answers!

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4/6/2006 2:53:45 AM

Rebecca A. Steed
BetterPhoto Member Since: 5/6/2005
  Abby, I can tell you want to be a photojournalist someday, but as a teenage photographer, I would stay away from documenting the drug problem in another town. I do think it is too dangerous for you, and I think there are other ways you could be creative. How much time do you have for this assignment? You could document the construction of a building. It's spring, so you could pick one flower and take several pictures of it developing from a bud to full bloom to withering. You could 'job shadow' and get permission to follow a person around in a 'day in the life of' sort of thing, perhaps a veterinarian, a fireman, teacher, business man, etc. You could find someone training for something and show the beginning, middle and end results.

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4/6/2006 4:24:00 AM

Debbie Del Tejo
BetterPhoto Member Since: 6/30/2005
  WOW...I went into a bakery yesterday and they gave me a sample of a delicious pie. You could see the kitchen from the front area and there were two lovely ladies peeling apples and a pie rack right in back of them with freshly baked pies. The baker was to the left of the ladies making thepie. In about 5 minutes I had a story....the peeling ( and if I wanted to, I could go photograph an apple tree, and the picking of the apples, the buying of the apples etc.) the baking, the selling and the tasing. It was so interesting and it was an old bakery with lots of character and lots of PIES!!!
In other words....BE PASSIONALTE ABOUT IT and you can create a photo essay out of just about anything. Main thing is HAVE FUN WITH IT!!!! Let us know how you did.

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4/6/2006 8:22:01 AM

Mark Feldstein
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/17/2005
  Hey Abby. Glad to hear you ditched the pads concept. Now, if what Becky says is true and you want to be a photojournalist at some point, then now is as good a time as any to start thinking like one, yes?

Let's pretend that as a staffer at National Geographic, your editor told you to go to the smallest and most boring town in say New Jersey and tell a story about it. On the one hand, you're not thrilled with the story line. "America's Most Boring Hometown". You somehow envisioned yourself trotting off to Spain, perhaps to photograph the running of the bulls. But if you don't do this well, you're on unemployment. what?

From what you said, you seem somewhat adverse to photographing people or perhaps people in churches. Why? People add living elements to photo documentaries. Unless you're photographing a desserted ghost town in Arizona, you need the people to give your piece depth and interest. OK, so we haven't given you any direct suggestions yet and still you've got your hand on the bucket and seem to be headed toward the well. Keep going and develop the concept(s), perhaps focus it a bit, modify it, say something like "Church Bake Sales in America's Most Boring Hometown." Think like a journalist. Ask questions, answer them, then ask some more based on your answers. Then storyboard it as to how you'd convey the subject and story in photos. You're getting there. And yeah, have fun with it but realize at the same time, what photojournalists do is quite a bit of creative work as well.

Take it light.
Mark F.
"Great spirits often encounter violent opposition from mediocre minds." A. Einstein.

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4/6/2006 11:36:59 AM

Mark Feldstein
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/17/2005
  OK, since you're not a "J" student quite yet and not on the pending Pulitzer list, I'll give you a hint: A news piece, including a documentary, should offer answers to the following questions but not necessarily in any particularized order. They are generally:
(1) Who
(2) What
(3) When
(4) Where
(5) Why and
(6) How.

Whaddya think?

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4/6/2006 11:46:00 AM

Abby Way
BetterPhoto Member Since: 6/27/2005
  Wow! I never expected so much advice from so many great BP'ers! :-D
I've read through everything you said (lol -- America's Most Boring Hometown" is about it. :-P )
I think the reason I'm so adverse to photographing people is because A. I'm paranoid about photo releases, from reading stories on here, and B. My mother tells me never to take pictures of people without asking them, and the articles say to take pictures first, then ask, for more candid shots! :-o
Thanks for all those hints, Mark!
I'm much more inspired now, thanks to your advice. I have a few ideas; expect to see some new photos in my gallery soon! ;-)
Once again, thanks!!!
Abby :-D

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4/6/2006 12:11:39 PM

Mark Feldstein
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/17/2005
  Well, your mom is kinda sorta right. You should ask permission whenever possible. Or, if it's after-the-fact, ask them to sign a model release. That's something you can find at a number of websites, including and It's a simple form that's short, easy for people to understand and allows you essentially unlimited use of the images. And, in most situations, people are flattered by your attention and are pretty open to signing the releases.

But, if you never ever plan to publish them, then you don't need a release. Although, (not to be a damp blanket) remember that publishing includes electronic publishing like placing on a web site. So if you publish people pix, you need a release (with a few exceptions that don't apply here).

The good news is that when you photograph people, it's a nice opportunity (most of the time) to meet and talk with people, find out what's up with them and get them to contribute to your own story. In other words, don't just shove a form and a pen at them and ask them to sign it. Explain what it's for AND offer to send them a print of your work (without charge) which can be sufficient legal consideration for signing the release in the first place.

Okie dokie? Go gettem Abby !!!

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4/6/2006 1:40:09 PM

Pam M
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/24/2005
  Wow Abby! I'm really ready to see how this turns out !! Please keep me posted!!!!!

have fun,

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4/8/2006 2:47:22 AM

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