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Composing Photo Essays in First Year Writing

— Eric Plattner, “Dawn of the Dead”

According to Wikipedia, there’s a productive & generative lack of consensus around what constitutes a “photo essay”:

  • An article in a publication, sometimes a full page or a two-page spread. Newspapers and news magazines often have multi-page photo essays about significant events, both good and bad, such as a sports championship or a national disaster.
  • A book or other complete publication.
  • A web page or portion of a web site.
  • A single montage or collage of photographic images, with text or other additions, intended to be viewed both as a whole and as individual photographs. Such a work may also fall in the category of mixed media.
  • An art show which is staged at a particular time and location. Some such shows also fall in the category of installation art.
  • A slide show or similar presentation, possibly with spoken text, which could be delivered on slides, on DVD, or on a web site.
  • In fashion publishing especially, a photo-editorial – an editorial-style article dominated by or entirely consisting of a series of thematic photographs

Teaching Style by Remediating the Photo Essay

Like a traditional essay, a photo essay assignment prompt should stipulate a specific length, such as ten pictures, in order to encourage students to think about what messages they wish to convey purposefully, what the general scope of the composition is, what structure is important to employ, and how pictures should transition into one another. Each photo could be described as a paragraph. Paragraphs in photo essays, like text essays, might include an element like a topic sentence, one main idea per paragraph, a transition to the next main idea, and some connection back to the main thesis of the essay.

Instructors can create class discussions about if the composition should include a title in text or image, and if text can appear in images and what purpose the juxtaposition of text and graphic could serve.

Teaching Style in Basic Writing through Remediating Photo Essays


The photo-essay—a group of pictures about a single subject, usually accompanied by captions—was a staple of photojournalism throughout Cartier-Bresson’s career. This section of the exhibition presents two such essays in abbreviated form, with the photographer’s original captions.

AIC: Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century

Via Eric Plattner:

Your primary mission should be “to capture the truth” of the thing.

Each photo might do that individually in its own way (might stand on its own), or it might require the collection of photos to do that (each photo a piece of the mosaic).

There’s no single answer to the “How many photos in a photo essay?” question. More than one is (arguably) correct. But you know you are lacking photos or have too many photos when you step back & ask yourself, “Am I capturing the truth of the thing?”

“This Was the City: 13 Chicago Elegies,” By Eric Plattner
Streetnotes 22: Photo Essay
Moore: WRD103 Photo Essays