Photo Essays – Turn Photos from the Field into Powerful Visual Stories

Laura Hanson, media lab intern, Boston University SPH 2013

It’s a scenario we’ve all experienced: we arrive, camera in hand at the fundraising event, workshop training or overseas program site and snap hundreds of photos. A few days, sometimes a few months later, we sit down at the computer to review our photos and post the best ones onto our website, Facebook, Instagram or Flicker gallery.

We live and breathe the background story of these photos, but to an outside viewer they may look like unconnected moments, characters and events (in essence, a lot of visual information without a structure to interpret it by).  One of your challenges as a nonprofit is to find meaningful ways to connect funders and followers with your organization’s vision and the people you serve.

Photo essays are a creative way to lead viewers through an ordered, visual story that reveals something important about your work, highlights a change overtime, tells a personal story from the perspective of a beneficiary – the applications are endless.

Q: What makes a photo essay ‘effective’ as a storytelling tool?

We know from experience that compelling stories are not simply pieces of information arranged at random. Nor are they a strict retelling of reality (i.e. a play-by-play of what happened while the camera was on). Rather, compelling stories are deliberately constructed based on which photos you select and how you arrange them to reveal each layer of information

Q: What’s the typical format for a photo essay?

A standard photo essay is comprised of 7-10 photos, each with a 1 or 2 sentence caption and if necessary, a short statement, no more than a few paragraph that provides any background information needed to understand the story. If there is a specific Call to Action associated with your photo essay, use this space to link views to your fundraising page etc. In general, let your photos do the talking. Only write what’s not already stated visually. You can trust your viewers to connect the dots.

Q: Where do I start?

By asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What’s purpose of my photo essay?

What’s the goal? What do you want to accomplish though the photo story? Let’s say, for example, that my nonprofit has started bringing primary health care services to one of the informal settlements outside the city of Windhoek, Namibia using mobile clinics. Many of my donors have never been to the settlement. Therefore, I want my photo essay to show a ‘day in the life’ of the clinic, providing health services to people living in this location.

    2. What’s the core message?

Photo essays are limited, forcing us to focus in on what’s most important about the story. When we try to say everything, our message gets muddled and confused. Articulate a few core ideas that you want to communicate. In my example above, I want viewers to understand that:

1) Informal settlements are located far from health centers

2) Mobile clinics bring health care to where people live and provide professional, high quality services at low cost

3) Residents appreciate the service and are making use of the clinics

     3. What will I show?

Let’s start with the first message above: Informal settlements are located far from health centers.

What can I show that will provide some solid “visual evidence” for this concept? Well, I can use a shot of the sprawling settlements at a distance to show where people live and add a caption to add context around actual distance from a clinic: “People unable to pay for a taxi end up walking 6 to 10km to get to a government clinic.”  Likewise, I can use the captions to add details like how much it costs to use the service and what services are provided.

Q: Which images should I use for my photo essay?

A photo essay should include a variety of shots including wide, medium, close up and detail shots. Imagine how much less emotional impact your favorite TV show would have if every scene was recorded in a wide view. Arranging a sequence of shots taken at different distances and angles is what adds interest and dimension to your story.

Wide Shot: this photo sets the scene and clues the viewer in on where the story is taking place and who’s involved. In this case, I can show what the settlements looks like and where the clinic comes every month.

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Medium Shot: This image focuses the viewer’s attention to the action in the scene. I can show people waiting to be seen by the nurses, registering their kids, receiving treatment and moving on with their day.

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Close-Up Shot: These are often your strongest images. They say to the viewer: “Hey, I want to you to see this.” A tight portrait, for example creates a sense intimacy between the viewer and the scene in the photo.


Detail shots: This shot is often overlooked but has important storytelling potential. Details provide visual cues and draw us into the scene. These shots support the theme that the services provided by the clinic are needed by the people who otherwise would not have regular access to health care.

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Once you’ve picked out the images you want to use, play around with your arrangement. Use the photos to reveal bits of information as you move though the story. Establishing shots, portraits, action shots and detail shots will likely be your strongest images.

Q: How do I create more continuity between my images?  

Depending on your photo essay, it may not be important that the photos look like they’re taken at the same location on the same day. If your photo essay is more thematic, about homelessness in Boston for example, your photos would look very different but would complement each other, drawing on the central theme.

Ideally however, your selection of photos should show some continuity, work to develop a character, or provide deeper insight into a particular issue. Creating your first photo essay will give you insight into what types of images to capture during your next opportunity on-site. For example, if I wanted to create a photo essay about the first day of school for a sponsored student, I could spend the day at the school, taking pictures of individual students and assemble a story later. Alternatively, I could ask to spend the morning with a single student and photograph her walking to school, receiving her supplies and desk assignment, grinning wildly as she opens up her schoolbooks. Rather than random moments, I now have the visual information I need to tell a powerful visual story that people will connect with and remember. You’ll find that the more you know what you’re looking for, the fewer and better photos you’ll take.

* To lean more about the Mister Sister Mobile Health Service visit