ANALYZING MEDIA: Photo Essays
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Cameras have allowed us to witness for ourselves important, emotional, tragic, and timeless moments in history. The most effective photographs help us experience these moments as if we were right there.
Photojournalists understand the powerful effects that images can have on people. Throughout history, they have documented everything from the triumph and tragedy of war to the problem of homelessness to life in other countries. While print journalists rely on words to tell the facts of a story, photojournalists tell stories in what are known as photo essaysstories primarily told through pictures, with captions and text to supplement the visuals.
"We See a Great Deal of the World"
Margaret Bourke-White, a photographer famous for taking pictures of ordinary people during the Great Depression, said the following about the role of photojournalists: "We see a great deal of the world. Our obligation is to pass it on to others." You can learn a great deal about the world through these "passed on" stories, but it's important to view them with a critical eye. Although cameras can be objective, the photographers using them bring their own biases, viewpoints, and opinions to their work. Sometimes photojournalists choose images that are intended to sway your emotions, or may cause you to feel a certain way about an issue or event. Essentially, when you are looking at a photo, you are seeing what the photographer wants you to see: the world through his or her eyes.
Alexander Gardner was a photojournalist who documented the Civil War. Gardner took some very dramatic photos showing dead Confederate soldiers. Since then, a researcher has concluded that Gardner staged some of his photos to make them more dramatic and to appeal to his audience. To learn more about this, visit the Library of Congress exhibit "The Case of the Moved Body" below.
Using what you've learned, analyze a photo essay from one of the online galleries below. You may search for a story that focuses on an important moment or event in history, or you may choose one that focuses on a more timely issue or event. Use the Questions to Consider below to guide you as you write.
"The Case of the Moved Body" http://memory.loc.gov/ ammem/ cwphtml/ cwpcam/ cwcam3.html
The Digital Journalist: Features Contents http://dirckhalstead.org/ feature.html
Newsweek.com: Photo Gallery http://www.msnbc.com/ news/ 810349.asp
TIME.com Photo Essays http://www.time.com/ time/ photoessays
Questions to Consider
- What is the subject and angle of the photo essay? What is the essay's message?
- Describe the photos in the essay. Which images are particularly memorable to you? Explain your reason.
- Do the photos appeal to your emotions? Are they intended to make you feel a certain way?
- Is the photo essay objective? If not, in what ways is it biased?
- Do captions or text accompany the photos? What do they say? Do the words and images effectively tell the story?
- In your opinion, does the photo essay do a good job of telling you about an important event or issue? Is there anything you think the photographer could have done differently?
One specific aspect of a story that a photojournalist or reporter chooses to cover.
Fair; balanced; not biased.
Stories that are told through a series of photographs and accompanying text.
A New Mindset
For this second essay, I had to analyze a photo essay of my choice, make a claim about the essay’s argument and message, and how certain images and accompanying narration support my claim. Since I was still in the mindset of evaluating the effectiveness of a website after the first essay, I already knew this essay would discourage me. Searching for a photo essay took multiple attempts because I would come across an essay that interested me but did not provide enough content for me to work with. Fortunately, I found the photo essay “A Flood of Toxic Sludge,” that was about a man-made flood in Western Hungary, which both caught my attention and presented enough information to fulfill the assignment’s requirements.
Even after discovering the benefits of having an extensive writing process, I started my rough draft relatively last minute, thus my first draft required significant revising. My introduction started off with “’Going green’ in order to save the environment has been an important issue for quite awhile in our society. We try to recycle, create alternative fuels to save energy, and keep any current pollution at bay. Industrial waste has also been a problem, especially when it isn’t dealt with properly,” which conveyed the idea that this photo essay’s purpose was to inform the audience of the global effects of pollution. After realizing that this introduction was misleading, I revised it by beginning with a quote from the photo essay and explaining how the quote causes the reader to assume that the message of the photo essay would revolve around the flood’s effects on the environment. However, the photographs dispute this assumption by presenting the Hungarians as the victims, which is the underlying purpose of the photo essay.
My first attempt at writing a complex thesis for this paper was far from a success, but it was a start. My thesis was vague and lacked necessary information, such as the visual elements used in the photographs and how they supported the photo essay’s message. It was also misleading because I claimed that “In a broader context, these photos are being used to show the effects industrial waste has on the environment and people living in the area.” This claim shows that I believed that the purpose of the photo essay was to inform readers of the effects of industrial waste. Similarly to what occurred with my introduction, with the help of my instructor’s feedback I realized that I completely misinterpreted the message of the photo essay. Actually, Alan Taylor, the creator of this photo essay, went the humanity route in order to “emphasize the flood’s impact on individual people and even animals.”
Now for the portion of my paper that required the most revision: my body paragraphs. I began with a structure where I briefly discussed the format of the photo essay, analyzed the photographs I selected arranged by the type of photo they were (aerial, individual, and nature), the necessity of using color images, and then evaluating the effectiveness of the photo essay’s organization. First, I had plenty of rearranging to do. For the general structure of the paper, I combined my paragraphs where I talked vaguely about the photo essay’s format and evaluated its effectiveness so that it followed my thesis paragraph. As for body paragraphs, I needed to rearrange the paragraphs where I explained the purpose of the aerial and individual photographs. In my first draft, I presented the three aerial images, provided a brief description, and followed with my analysis. In the next paragraph, I organized the images of the different points of view based on numerical order rather than significance. I did not even notice that I made no mention of the visual element that was used in either paragraphs. By my final draft, I explicitly stated the visual element that was shown in the topic sentence of each paragraph and separated my one paragraph about the aerial photos into three so that I could focus on each image individually. I also reorganized the pictures to show a woman’s perspective first, a resident’s view, and lastly, a shopkeeper’s view. This way, readers would immediately get a sense of what the woman saw because only her back profile was being shown which allowed the audience to step in her shoes. This new organization strengthened my overall argument.
The most frustrating part of this essay was the conclusion, hands down. In my rough draft, I had no idea how to wrap up my argument and present several new ideas simultaneously. Since it was just a first draft, I decided to contrast my current photo essay to the photo essay I had previously chosen and evaluate how much more effective it was. During a conference with my instructor, she confirmed my notion that I had returned to the evaluating mode that I was in for the previous essay. After several suggestions for a new conclusion, I decided to discuss whether or not Taylor decided to document this disaster solely to inform his audience. I also presented a new claim that Taylor did not just want to only inform his readers, but to remind them that there’s a connection that link us together.
As a whole, I’m confident about the outcome of my paper even though it took me five drafts to get to where my essay is now. However, I believe all of my effort paid off. My drafts is evidence of how my argument has evolved from my rough draft to my final, and I gained insight on why I took the steps I decided to take to revise what I needed to change. Now that I’ve recognized what I had trouble with, I can focus on those parts of my essay next time. What I learned from this essay was that constantly changing your content and evolving your argument does not necessarily mean I am a bad writer, it just means that I am able to catch my mistakes and improving in expressing what I want to say.
To read my Photo Essay Analysis: Click Here