Photo-essays, past, present and future

I have been producing photo-essays in one form or another for a couple decades. In that time, my approach to them has changed, as have the various ways that photo-essays are seen. After a long, slow decline in outlets, a new and exciting one has appeared.

First, I think it wise to define the idea of a photo-essay. If we break the phrase down, I think we can agree on what we mean by the word “photo.” Clearly, the important question is what is an “essay?” The definition varies, but the one I like best is rooted in the French verb “assay,” to assess or weigh the quality of a precious metal. Using this framework, the goal of any kind of essay is to weigh the quality of an idea.

A written essay, by this definition, conveys information, but it also conveys that from the author’s point of view. Similarly, a photo essay is as much about the information shown as it is about the photographer’s perspective on that subject. A good essay, in words or images, offers the reader a new point-of view. This differs from the more classical photo story, which typically tells the subject’s story but minimizes the author’s point of view.

Defining the point of view is the hardest part of developing any photo-essay. In my own photo essays, as much as half of the work is just clarifying my point of view and figuring out how to make that visual. My own process in doing projects frequently leads me to try different strategies before I settle on the one that works. In fact, my experience is that if my essay does not change as I move from conception to completion, I have not been working hard enough.

By way of background, I started doing small photo stories at various newspapers that I worked for early in my career. Though I enjoyed those projects, I felt like I quickly reached the limits of the photo-story format. I kept switching jobs between small, medium and large newspapers trying to find a place to work that would allow me to do what I really wanted to do, photo-essays. After five years of newspaper work, I became a freelancer, still looking for an outlet for the work I was making, which had my increasingly prominent point of view.

Between 1986 and 1996 I produced sixteen photo essays (as a freelancer) for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine. When it was being published, the Inquirer Sunday Magazine was arguably the best Sunday magazine in the business. Numerous awards, including Pulitzer prizes substantiate this point. My editors, who were some of the best in the business, have gone on to work for major publications, most notably, the National Geographic.

What I liked about producing photo essays as a freelancer for the Inquirer Sunday Magazine was the freedom to experiment with the point of view that I brought to a given project. Some of my photo-essays, like my piece on Philadelphia’s 30th street station, were primarily visually driven aesthetic experiences for the reader. You can see that work at: www.davidhwells.com/lightStation/index.html

My work on the complex relationship between Israelis and Palestinians was more idea driven. You can see that work at: www.davidhwells.com/docuuPalIsr/index.html
The best projects I did for the Inquirer Sunday Magazine were the ones where the text was minimal, where I wrote the text or where my editors had text written after the fact, so the point of view I established in the imagery lead that of the text. Anyone who has worked in journalism knows that 99% of the time, the text drives the point of view of the finished piece, not the images.

Over the decade, I found the need to tie my imagery to any kind of text to be creatively limiting. I am still wrestling with the ever-present words vs. pictures dilemma.

Each essay taught me something new, about my strengths and about my weaknesses. They also grew progressively larger in scope. A few of them were grant funded but not all. The grants I was honored with ended up serving as seed money to cover my costs for transportation, accommodation, meals and photography equipment/materials.
The business model that I used for that decade (1986 – 1996) entailed first producing the photo-essays for the Inquirer. I might lose money on that initial effort (based on how much effort I put into the project vs. what the Inquirer paid me.) But I more than made up the difference later when my NYC photo agent would send copies of those beautiful Inquirer magazine layouts to publications around the world. Publications, particularly in Europe, loved what they saw, so they would pay another fee to publish those images. These fees added up to a decent but not spectacular income.

A growing problem I was aware of at that time was that just as I was getting really good at making photo-essays for Sunday magazines, (including but not limited to the Inquirer Sunday Magazine,) those same publications were disappearing. Towards the end of the decade producing those sixteen photo-essays, I realized I was in a race to get as many done as I could, before I lost my primary outlet. Needless to say, most Sunday magazines are long gone today.

Another problem I have recently come to appreciate was that, subconsciously, once I felt like I “done” a certain kind of photo-essay, I wanted to move on and up. For example, after I completed the project on the pesticide poisoning of farm workers in California, something inside of me said “you have done a prize winning photo-essay on an important (and under-appreciated) domestic political topic, so you are done in that arena.” The same can be said for my Israeli-Palestinian project, where I took on a decades-old, international conflict, and yet brought something new to the topic.

For the last few years, I have been working on what is clearly my largest photo-essay, exploring globalization in South Asia. I could not pick a much bigger topic, globalization, nor could I select a much more important place to explore the topic than in South Asia where, globalization is changing everything in its wake.

As the scope of the project has expanded, I have openly put more and more of my point of view into the project. To see the evolution of that project, view the podcast: www.thewellspoint.com/2008/12/31/creative-evolution-of-my-project-concurrence-india

As in my earlier work, I initially struggled with the issue of text in this photo-essay. In the current incarnation of the project, I use no text (though earlier versions experimented, unsuccessfully with text.) Instead, I use image pairings in diptychs and image groupings in triptychs, to highlight connections between images. If you spend enough time with a given triptych, you will learn something about globalization in South Asia, but equally importantly, you will encounter my point of view on the subject. To see the final form of that project, go to my web site at: www.davidhwells.com/docuuIndiaExhibit/index.html

The good news about this latest project is that it is the closest I have ever come to making the perfect photo-essay (if perfection is even attainable.) The bad news is that there are no Sunday magazines to publish the work so I am increasingly exhibiting the work in galleries and museums. I still reach a wide audience, but not like I once did.

The irony of my experience with grant-funded projects was that as I became more adept at securing grant funding for my projects, the outlets for the photo-essays were disappearing. I often wondered if there couldn’t be a grant to fund the dissemination/publication of photo-essays. It does not do much good for any foundation to help photographers create innovative work if no one sees the work. Recently, this problem was addressed recently when the Soros foundation created and funded a program called the Documentary Photography Project. According to their website:

“In 2003, the Open Society Institute launched the Documentary Photography Project. Through exhibits, workshops, grantmaking, and public programs, the project explores how photography can shape public perception and effect social change. The Documentary Photography Project supports photographers whose work addresses social justice and human rights issues that coincide with the Open Society Institute’s mission.”

Read more about that at: www.soros.org/initiatives/photography/about

As importantly, Gary Knight of the photo agency VII, has started a new quarterly publication ‘dispatches,’ using long form photo essays on one particular subject in each issue. It is arguably the only active publication to offer this amount of space (more than 80 pages in a recent issue) to one photographer.

If it succeeds, it will set a precedent for the power of the printed photograph in an era where photo-essays in magazines and traditional publications are all but gone. ‘Dispatches’ is self-financing and if you believe in photo-essays, you should consider a subscription. Read more about that at: www.rethink-dispatches.com

The photo essay has changed over time and the arrival of “dispatches” is a reminder of the importance of that form of storytelling. Whether it lives or dies, is up to subscribers, like you and me.

One response to “Photo-essays, past, present and future”

  1. Hi David — wonderful to learn more details about your history and process. And inspiring as far as pursuing the photo essay project I have in mind.

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