Visual storytelling in Environmental Photojournalism: photo essays, photo stories, tips and techniques.

By Linley Bignoux

The consensus in any type of photography is to tell a story which transcends time and space whilst communicating something important via a central character or subject matter. Telling a visual story is a creative endeavour, one that has a lot to do with planning and then shooting your plan.
It gives a sense of direction and objectifies what you want to convey in your images, storyboard or storyline within your photography style. For me, my category or genre I find most appealing is Environmental Photojournalism, one which I have always been attracted to and attempt to instil in my photographs and writing.
But let’s talk about photojournalism and how we can go about it, what do you photograph and how and why photojournalism is important. What are the things you might need to know about finding a visual story to tell the world about? Let’s start looking at how this works
Ultimately the goal is to find the right people, be in the right situations and make a connection with your subject and know about your subject you are shooting or attempting to capture, this will undoubtedly connect your photos to a wider audience, better still convey your photos with the message you intended.
Now having this in mind, picture what you want to communicate not as a photographer but as an observer or a concerned or curious person photography is a medium that you can use a tool, clearly place what you want to convey, picture that in your mind before you take any photos or a series of them.
Having a clear indication or idea of what your picture story or photo essay will be about is the same as how you would write a narrative piece of writing, this is narrative form, telling a story with an introduction, body and a conclusion this is just s important in photo essays or picture stories.
While the characters of your story need to be detailed, your subject matter needs to be engaging in some way or another and yet tell an overall story with minimal writing or text that involves the viewer, your photographs need to connect with the audience who you are telling a story too via imagery alone.
Visual storytelling is a way that you can make a viewer or audience able to see what you want to accomplish with the medium of photography as a tool while moving the viewer along in your storyline to see what happened from start to finish
One thing about photo stories/photo essays is that they are combined sequentially, a lot like individual scenes in the movie, both on how the story unfolds, how the composition is made and how the characters in the movie are portrayed what is the overall storyline or gist of the story. This is no different in photo essays or stories in the reportage style or long-form visual stories like in documentary photography.
In fact, movies are a good way to explain the structure of a story when breaking them down into the scenes that transition from one to another, they follow a particular visual structure although they are longer in duration, the principles re the same from cinema to photography, that’s probably an easier way for me to describe it!
Just think to yourself how a movie starts, what happens in the middle and then at the end, who are the characters, what is the plot, how are the images arranged, what is the genre (ie comedy, action, drama) how are the characters portrayed and how is the subject moving through the film, what is the subject of the film? Just some examples to keep in mind. It is no different in photo essays or visual storytelling
Story elements, characters involved and the way you frame your perspective on things will inform your story and viewer just like your composition will do the same in telling a narrative and where such photos will fit into your photo essay, will be important as well.
Although you don’t need to exclusively do photo essays or photo stories you can have one image by itself that tells a story or tells part of a story, it all depends on how you want the story to be told, keeping the elements of light and composition in mind and not your camera settings, this should have been done before you start to shoot in the brainstorming and planning stage of your, reportage visual story or photo essay project.
Remember it’s about telling a story, you can do some stories with 25,15 or 10 photographs, other with just one. Visual storytelling is also how you want to compose your photos with the subject matter in mind just as much as the light is important in the scenery, it does not matter if it’s one photo or multiple ones, it depends largely on your subject matter and much you can tell in a story.
Similarly what needs to be considered is the What, Why, Who, When and Where, commonly referred to as the 5 W’s. The visual story relies on this fundamental principle which comes from the category or genre Photojournalism, which ensures objectivity, correctness ethics proximity relevance and facts in your photographs.
Lets put this into context, say you have a story that you think is important to tell, in you planning stage and during it, you should ask these simple questions to keep your photo stories focused and engaging to a viewer and yourself as a photographer.
This is typically seen as a brainstorming exercise before, and acts as an objective or aim during, and lastly, after your photo essay tells you if you meet those aims or objectives that you set out or intended to photograph in the first place.
For example :(What)- What is the focus of your story, what is the subject of your photo, what is the subject matter. What has someone else photographed that others have not, What angle can I cover that has not been covered before?
(Who)- Who is it about, who is the audience, who will be interested in seeing these photos, who can help you get the photos you want, Who will be the characters in my story?
(Why)-Why is this photo essay or photo important for people to see, Why should I do this type of photo essay ? or Why this issue you are photographing is happening?
(What)-What you going to photograph about, What is the story, What is the focus or angle of the story?
(Where)- Where can I find subjects that will help me tell my visual story or photo essay? Where can I go to find out about my subjects?
Where will I be photographing, Where can I find more information?
(When) When are you going to do it, When will I be able to do it with my subjects I have already asked? When will it be published, When questions are time-related so this comes down to your planning and logistics stage, When can also be weather-related for example: When will the weather be good for the correct lighting, When it’s cloudy, When its rainy, When its sunny!
These are some questions to ask yourself which aims to point your photos or your projects in a way which has structure, has an objective and has aimed.
Additionally, there is How is photography (How)-In your story you need to explain how things happened, How are you going to tell them the story, How are you going to get to the place to photograph? How are my characters and subjects portrayed in my images?
Remember the story you are photographing and to attempt or try to answer these questions in your photos, Who is involved in the story?
What happened in the story?
When does it happen?
Where is it happening?
Why is it happening?
How is it happening?
Note that photojournalists use captions in the story under the photograph to give and guide the viewer with these 5 W’s and 1 H.
All these questions gather more credibility to your photos visually and tell a story, remember one photo may not be able to answer these questions, but a series of photos will. One photo can explain the when, another the how, another the why and etc etc
The 5 W’s and 1H are important since in today’s media-driven climate and due to the overall and overwhelming competition there no longer exits the traditional photojournalist like it was before, although there are many around the world, the big budgets are gone, newspapers no longer dish ou budgets on photography like they used to.
Adhering to the fundamentals of both photography ad photojournalism techniques and tactics, your long term aim will be to instil visual stories that say something about your subject whilst answering the 5 W’s and 1 H giving context and expression while keeping in mind composition and lighting to set both the mood and place and interaction with the viewer of your photographs or photograph.
News agencies are struggling with the traditional business models they came costumed to over the years before the internet revolution and the information age, and along with it photography and photojournalism have become a different field altogether which is mainly a freelance world so now creativity and objectivity has become more important without newspapers and media organizations
In today’s world, your photography or photojournalism projects will be self-funded, photo essays, features and standalone photographs will be financed by you in a freelance world most of the time, commissions are getting less frequent, reserved for the few, so if you want to pay your bills you need to have a real passion for this type or category of photography, getting paid and getting paid well in this field is getting hard in photojournalism and photography as a whole for that matter.
Photojournalism is a passion and you need to be driven to this type of photographic genre, however, it will be worth it, it will be creative, quite challenging and you learn always, that why I like it !!
You need to go out and create your own stories, this will interest you more since you will be motivated about things that you interest you or want to photograph as I said before, there are fewer and fewer newspapers and agencies willing to fund your projects as they did before. This is a good thing since photographers are now less constrained by editors, you choose your own assignments and you edit your own work, that’s why photojournalism is quite important to keep you objective in a subjective field such as photography.
We live in the era of citizen photojournalism, social media and shrinking budgets and the fact that print media and the uptake of photography by virtually everyone and phone ownership have changed the game, everyone has a camera and everyone is a photographer now.
You need to stand out and have passion for photography, this is where most photographers make the difference as people or audiences or the viewer of you images will see this in your photography, it needs to have spirit and heart.
Knowledge and experience play there part as well. How I try and attempt to put things together in photography and that of photojournalism largely comes down to my knowledge and past experience which informs my photography but not dictated by it.
For me, Environmental Photojournalism was a natural inclination and I gravitated towards it over the years to really enjoy this category of photography. For just over 3 years I wrote for a few news publications as a freelance news correspondent journalist, I learnt a lot from that experience and this taught me how to formulate stories, how to compose my writing for news style or journalistic style of writing utilizing the inverted pyramid and the 5 Ws and 1 H as the guide on all journalistic writing, this is the same in photojournalism, no different, the only difference is your telling stories via photos instead of writing
I am largely self-taught, I bought 2 Journalism textbooks and I read them and practised my writing over the years, teaching myself the fundamentals of journalism and finding out how to gather leads for a story, and that’s what I did since I had to produce news that was clear and concise and with a purpose, your photography should be exactly the same and especially in photojournalism.
I was always photographing and from the film days as well and now into the digital age and along the way I combined my writing to photography which is why I have that keen interest in photojournalism and environmental photojournalism. Having said that, having knowledge on the subject your photographing is important even if it is at a rudimentary or basic level.
Over the years I taught myself bout the fundamentals of Marine Biology, Marine Ecology, Occeogrphy and Environmental Science to better comprehend our physical world and how that relates or informs my photography and writing about it is where I grew fond of Environmental Photojournalism since it draws upon many aspects of the environment and photography bringing with it a synergy of knowledge and experience I gathered over the years into visual stories or visual storytelling in photography.
Definitely, my interest in Environmental Photojournalism comes from photographing and writing about the underwater world. I started doing underwater photography over 14 years ago and being a certified Scuba Diving Instructor meshed up my experiences and informed my photography and visual stories.
So, subjets I know largely informs what I like to photograph and photojournalism is an ideal way to express it, via the distinct category or genre of Environmental Photojournalism. Having knowledge of subject matter is going to be positive when you re looking to plan shoot your visual stories and lends credibility to your photos and what you write about.
Now for me, I choose Environmental Photojournalism since it fits in with my interests, following the principles and techniques of fundamental photojournalism to create visual stories or photo, essays will be essential to tell the stories that you like while informing your audience in a clear and concise visual package. However remember that it’s not about your photography, it is about what you photograph.
There are many many great Photojournalists, too many to list here, and on the same token great Photographers and great Environmental Photojournalists, they all use principles and techniques described in what I have said in this written post to convey their visual stories, photographs and photo essays.

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