Telling a story in pictures

Telling a story in pictures

By Jo Caird 09/05/10

As we build up to the launch of the IdeasTap Photographic Award, Magnum Photos' Sophie Wright explains how to create a narrative with pictures

Magnum Photos was founded as a co-operative in 1947 by the photographers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David "Chim" Seymour.

It was established to give its photographers independence from the magazines, by retaining authorship of their images. Today, the agency they formed represents over 70 photographers and estates worldwide, with offices in New York, London, Paris and Tokyo.

Sophie Wright is Cultural and Print Room Director in Magnum’s London office. Here she tells us about the power of photo essays to tell stories.


Photo essays give the viewer an insight into a story that they may never have been able to access before. In the days before television, they were the main means of visual news distribution.

Today, the means to present the news has diversified to include web-based platforms, containing words, images and audio, such as Magnum in Motions, but traditionally they were a static series of images, the narrative built up by the photographer and/or picture editor, often to accompany an article, but sometimes reproduced by themselves, to tell a story about a particular subject.

With image transmission so fast-paced these days, this classic approach still retains a lot of power; a selection of pictures on the walls of a gallery or in a magazine is something that someone can spend time with and contemplate.

Magnum photographers work by telling stories. They’re trying to get to the root of an issue or theme that they’ve either been commissioned to photograph or are choosing to explore independently. They shoot around a subject over a period of time: this can be anything from a day to several trips over a longer period of time for magazine commissions; or, if it’s a personal project, it might stretch over many years, with final production as a book or exhibition.

These days anyone can take a great photograph, but not anyone can take a selection that is coherent and tells a story in an effective way. Thinking around your subject matter is the first step in creating a photo essay: what are you trying to communicate to your viewer?

Preparation prior to shooting is important, but go with the flow when you’re photographing something – this comes with experience of course, but it’s about keeping your eyes and ears open and trying to get as much information together as you can. It’s about getting yourself into the best place to get the photographs you want. Don’t be tempted to take 10 zillion pictures of the one shot. It’s much more of an art to be efficient in the way that you photograph. The point is not to accumulate as many images as possible, but to accumulate a set of images that all say something different and add up to a significant whole.

The third stage is the editing, which is incredibly important. The style in which a photographer edits their work is often as important in defining their visual voice as the photographs themselves. Don’t rush this process – photographers often return two or three times to an edit to refine it.

Also, don’t be afraid to collaborate. A lot of photographers do. You can have a very strong idea of what works, but these things often benefit by being bounced off other people. Sometimes this is done in association with the editor of a magazine or newspaper. An objective party will be able to tell you whether or not they are having the sort of response that you are trying to achieve with that material.

Within any essay, there will be some key images that are self-contained. These may well get used individually on different projects, but within the narrative all images are chosen to give the best overall representation of a subject. So the photographs interlink and their interrelationships are very important. As a result, some images may not stand alone, but are still vital in terms of the overall composition of the message that they’re trying to tell.

Photo essays differ hugely in terms of length. From a feature in a magazine, which could be as little as five images, up to entire books of work on a theme. Just like written essays, they’re all individually very different from each other and rely very much on the context that that material is going to be seen within. Will it be published in a magazine? Will it be online? Will it be seen on a gallery wall? All these different contexts for the work will affect the editing of that material.

Sophie Wright was talking to Jo Caird

Find out more about our collaboration with Magnum Photos, The IdeasTap Photographic Award.

Images courtesy of Magnum and Ian Berry

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