Making A Photo Essay

In putting together the photo essay for my project on Matsuyoshi san – a homeless man in Tokyo called ‘Ibashoganai’ I was quite perplexed as to where to start and how to go about it. I had around 3500 photos and have never constructed a photo essay before. Not being particularly well schooled in visual literacy and being quite attached to certain photos, I did what I do best, procrastinate. Then one day after listening to a certain photo editor being interviewed on ‘Depth Of Field’ the Matt Brandon podcast and offering his services I decided to contact him and see if he could help.

I will write a bit about what I learned and how it has helped the way I take photos. I won’t name said editor just yet as I haven’t asked for his permission, but will do so once I’ve checked in with him.

The first process is to go through all the photos in Lightroom giving them a start rating from 3 – 5. I chose 5 as my best and 3 as my least favourite of my favourites. All in all I narrowed it down to about 320 photos which wasn’t too difficult. I found determining which star rating to give them the hardest part.

The editor I spoke to explained his initial process of going through the photos, looking for around 1 – 2 seconds at a time and making a quick decision to keep or discard. He then chose what he decided should be the first photo as it sets the scene and the subject and then using the compare function (C) in Lightroom would see which photo works best as the next in the sequence, as he says ‘ a part of the relationship is how each image hands off to the next’, which is an interesting thing to consider when making a photo  essay i.e. that how the eyes move through the images is almost as important as the content.

To explain this in relation to my project (see below, though to understand the construction of the essay it is best viewed in slideshow, which you can see at the end of this article), in the first photo the eye is brought into the photo to fix immediately onto Matsuyoshi san’s face, you’re going inside the picture to the mid ground. The next photo is set up and you go straight to the clock as the face from the first photo has already told you where to look.

The third photo brings you out into a lighter and more open environment, offering contrast, although the subject of homelessness has not yet been defined. Photo number 4 is darker and offers a suggestion of homelessness but is still a bit vague. Photo number five where Matsuyoshi san steps into a sidewalk in an area where homeless people live is a more open and objective view which confirms that this story is about homelessness. Then the next photo contrasts by going in very close and intimately and also introduces a theme of hands which continues through the rest of the project.

The photo of him walking along the street with a Japanese Santa in the background most likely works as we go from a behind and above view of Matsuyoshi san, a photo which is quite emotively dark, to a much more cheery photo where we can see his face, demonstrating that contrast, not just in visual tone but also in expression and emotion is important.

Next we go to a picture of him selling The Big Issue. It shows interaction with other people and also gives the viewer a bit of a break from the intensity and personal nature of the photos up until now. We then see Matsuyoshi san storing his things, but we don’t see his face. There is a question as to what he is doing and also a slight question as to who it is, also the theme of hands returns and starts to create a rhythm, with an upward movement. Pause for thought and the hands are down in the next photo of him sitting pensively beneath a clock in McDonalds. The pause contrasts with the following photo which is an action shot of people exercising in the park, hands up.

Then dance related photos follow with the rhythm of hands up, hands down, hands up. Then we slam back into real life (hands down) as we see Matsuyoshi san brushing his teeth outside a bicycle parking area, then selling The Big Issue (hands up).

There are many layers to a story and I have mentioned a few things that I might not have necessarily noticed or thought about had I not got help from a professional who has done this thousands of times before. There is of course just the story of Matsuyoshi san’s life, but a photo essay should aim to tell that story in the most visually interesting and pleasing way.

Out of the photos that the editor I worked with chose, I would have probably picked about half of them, and the other half were ones that were probably 3 or 4 star ratings. Overall I am not overly pleased with my photos and have learnt a lot about documentary photography through putting together this story. I think that the photos are OK, just OK. Emotively I think that they tell a good story, but I don’t think that they are the most interesting photos to look at. It is difficult to find the right moment when you spend all day with someone and are just trying to tell ‘their story’.

Something that the editor I worked with advised me is to be predictive and less responsive, meaning to have your frame and wait for the action to fill the frame rather than just following the subject matter. I recently watched this talk by Sam Abell on Youtube, which i would highly recommend:

Sam explains that he always sets up his frame and waits for the action to fill it rather than following the action. It takes patience and a bit of faith that something will happen. He also talks about framing from back to front. I have been applying these  two principles to my photos and have already seen an increase in the number of successful shots I take.

Have you tried making a photo essay before? I would love to hear your comments, thoughts or ideas.


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