How to Create a Meaningful Photo-Essay in 5 Steps

Federico Alegría
4 min readNov 27, 2021
Photo by Roman Kraft

The storytelling nature of photography is no secret. It has been used for a century to narrate stories in a very peculiar and effective way. Narrative photographic projects have great power, and regardless of the level of experience and maturity of the photographer, they are very appealing. Photographic essays invite us to research a topic or a theme in depth. Documentary photography is perhaps one of the closest things to “narrative” as we traditionally know it. Even though times have changed, and photography has been open to more independent photographers who don’t have the same resource bonanza as the editorial or journalistic photographers of previous decades, this new democracy opens the door to the freedom of speech — a freedom that doesn’t have to obey any media interests whatsoever.

All right, but what is a photo essay in the first place?

A photo essay is a narrative that uses a group of images to tell a story or emphasize a specific concept. The camera plays a utilitarian role and is pretty far from what the final result can convey to those who read it (either completely or just partially). Being a narrative in a very holistic form, the essay should include the following elements in the most extreme cases:

  • Introduction
  • Contextualization
  • Opening
  • Development
  • Conflict
  • Continuation
  • Climax
  • Resolution
  • Closing

Not all essays will have to allow such a complex storyline, but we can take some of these elements to formulate an idea of what an essay should include. Therefore, a photo essay is a way to tell a story from beginning to end, with substance and meaningful content.

Most photographic essays require preparation, organization and direction. Photographic essays began to be published in the 1930s after magazines saw that a story could best be told if the text was accompanied by photographs. It is no coincidence that, by this time, cameras had evolved such that they could capture images quickly enough to freeze motion. Also, portability came into the picture thanks to the practical nature of the 35mm film. It was LIFE magazine that…