Sharing photo essay ideas

I just finished teaching a series of photography workshops in Asia, including my favorite photo-essay class. In that workshop, students initially practice the skills required for a long-term photo-essay AND then they start working on the project of their choosing. I show them how the hardest part of a good essay is defining the project. I was reminded in Singapore how a good workshop group, one that is willing to share ideas, can make that process of defining a project much easier. Just as this was happening, I was also having an e-mail exchange with an American photographer, who seemed concerned about keeping his project idea to himself. I am still trying to figure out if the diverging thinking on sharing ideas was an aberration, or if it tells us something about the difference between Singaporean and American mindsets.

The Singaporeans in the class understood the value of sharing their ideas as they worked to define their photo-essays. We spent time brainstorming until their ideas were close to if not fully formed. A couple of them proposed photo essays on the same topic, but they realized immediately that each of them would bring something different to the process of photographing what appeared to be the “same” thing. Once they started photographing, that was exactly how it played out. One of the two photographers exploring the topic was more interested in the people involved while the other, ostensibly photographing the “same” topic, was more interested in the space and the objects.

I was in that same sharing mindset as I was responding to an e-mail from an American photographer who had previously attended one of my two hour, “Intro to the Photo-Essay” lectures. He told me about his project, what his motivation had been, how he had a better access than most people and how his passion for the issue would likely make his photo-essay that much stronger.

I thought he was making a very good argument for my point, that what makes a really great photo-essay is when the author’s unique perspective shapes the work. I thought he meant this was doubly so with his chosen topic, an issue of great human interest, with potential for very compelling images. I wrote him back, under the assumption that his writing to me, a blog editor, was a bit like writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper, something destined to be shared with others.

So, as I often do when someone writes me a “good question,” I drafted a blog entry around his e-mail. I ran it by him, mostly to make sure that I had interpreted his note correctly. He asked me to make a few factual changes, which I was happy to do. During the e-mail exchange, I also directed him to a few web sites where he could see the work of other photographers who had photographed the same topic from a wide variety of very different points of view. I sent that along to introduce him to other photographer’s approaches to the topic AND to re-enforce the idea that his unique approach was what would make or break his photo-essay.

I have experienced similar “make or break moments” when I was starting some of my own photo-essays. When I decided I wanted to photograph the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, I had a daunting task in defining an approach that had not been used before. It took me almost six months of photographing the topic, part-time, but eventually I came up with my own unique perspective on the subject. The awards/grants that I have won for that work (and the inclusion of the same work in books and magazines on the topic) suggests that my particular approach was unique and my work added something to the larger discussion of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.

Much the same thing happened with my earlier project on the pesticide poisoning of farmworkers. Farmworkers have been photographed almost since the beginning of photography. To really appreciate this point, look at the book “Everyone Had Cameras: Photography And Farmworkers In California, 1850-2000” by Richard Steven Street. You can read more about that book at: So, when I approached the subject of farm workers I knew I had to bring something different to my effort and I ended up, after a great deal of work, emphasizing the impact of pesticides on farm workers and especially on their children. Again, the awards/grants that I have won for that work (and the inclusion of the same work in books and magazines on the topic) suggests that my particular approach added something to the larger discussion of farmworkers.

The Singaporeans in my photo-essay class understood that collaboration and sharing would benefit all of them. The American who I was corresponding with had an exactly opposite reaction. The divergent reactions may be a one-time thing or they may reflect something about the differing cultures.

I started wondering…… America is supposed to be the nation built by the rugged individualist. On the other hand, everything I read seems to be pointing towards more integration, cross cultural connection, collaboration, etc. Crowd sourcing is on the rise and the lone artist in his studio appears to be on the wane. This mental mash-up of ideas reminded me of how, in a recent blog entry, I wrote about what drives me to photograph, saying:

“… I do not primarily photograph for money. I photograph out of curiosity first and foremost. I photograph because doing so takes me to new places, into the lives of others and generally on what I think of as little adventures. I do a great deal of street photography, which is at its core an unending series of those same small adventures and surprises.”

In thinking about that, I realized that I forgot to mention the OTHER reason that I photograph. I produce photo-essays, in-depth projects exploring various topics from my point of view, in order to understand what it is I am photographing. My current project photographing inside foreclosed houses is an example of that. The foreclosure crisis is this monstrous, amorphous thing sweeping across this country. I wanted to try to understand at least a part of it, so I started a photo-essay on that topic.”

Ironically, my Singaporean students, my American correspondent and I all struggle with the same question of how do we photograph a subject in a way that is both true to our selves, and connects with our audience-to-be. A project that only interests the photographer, like an album of family photos, is fine for that photographer, but of little value to an outside audience. A project only made for an outside audience, usually lacks the soul and the passion that is the byproduct of a photographer exploring something they care about, a subject they are curious to better understand.

The Singaporeans grasped what I already know, that sharing my projects, as ideas, as works in progress and as finished work makes the final photo-essay that much better. That sharing is so much a part of my own projects that I do every project under the assumption that, as I tell all my students, If your project does not change between when you start and finish the project, you are not working hard enough.

A project has to change as it evolves and it evolves by being shared rather than kept as a secret. In that sense, I think my Singaporean students were on to something. They left the class appreciating how good project surprises and educates the author, just about as much as it surprises and educates the final audience.

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