Assignment 3: photo essay workflow

Assignment 3 is all about Visual Storytelling – incorporating a sense of narrative into a photo essay. While I have delivered photo essays in the past, I really want to start work on this assignment in earnest with a deeper understanding of photographic narrativity, and a refresher on best practice for photo essays generally.

To this end, the two main sources of theory have informed my planning for this assignment are the 2010 David Campbell lecture as directed in the assignment brief, and a re-reading of Hurn & Jay’s chapter on photo essays in On Being a Photographer (1997).

On Being a Photographer

My first reading of this book did not endear me to it. I found most of it to be lazily written (it’s a transcript of two friends having a conversation) and patronising.

However, I always remembered that the chapter on photo essays included a structured approach that might come in handy for this particular assignment, even if it’s a little restrictive for some kinds of projects.

An aside: my assignment will include pictures taken at protest marches; I had forgotten, but was amused to see that Hurn uses a protest march to make one of his key points, about avoiding easy visual clichés:

“Ask somebody who has been to a protest march or demonstration what they remember about the event and they might reply: ‘There were about 6,000 people there, most of them very quiet, many of them were middle class and a lot of them were women with kids. Most were reasonably smartly dressed.’

When you look at their contacts you see five people in unusual clothes and a punch-up that lasted all of three minutes during the three-and-a-half-hour march. The pictures do not relate to the photographer’s memory of the event. Too often, the photographer looks for the visually strong picture rather than covering what actually happens.” (Hurn 1997)

I will endeavour to take this highly specific advice on board!

Planning and shooting workflow

The basic planning and shooting workflow proposed by Hurn is as follows (I will look at selection and sequencing later):

  • Identify the purpose of the project
  • Research the subject
  • Identify how many pictures are required
  • Divide the topic or theme into the same number of headings as the number of pictures required
  • Devise a proposed structure of shot types, e.g.:
    • Establishing
    • Medium
    • Close-up
    • portrait
    • Action
    • Closing
    • etc
  • If possible, observe the situation or event before taking any pictures, taking notes
  • Combine the last two points into a ‘shooting script’
  • Tick off the required images, one by one
    • Don’t repeatedly shoot the same thing – if you’ve got the shot, you’ve got it

I confess I find this approach comes across as overly restrictive, and would seem to take photography projects as quite dour, predictable things rather than opportunities for experimentation or happy accidents.

Hurn and Jay repeatedly emphasise a point that can be summarised in the sentence: “The aim is to take images which become your memory of the event.” (ibid). This advice makes absolute sense for photojournalism, where ‘authenticity’ and ‘neutrality’ are important.

However, photojournalism is not the only medium for a photo essay – a wider view of documentary photography would encompass the more subjective, expressive, authorial work that other photographers practice. One could easily accept a variation on Hurn’s quote above that said ‘The aim is to take images which become your impression of the event.’

So I’m inclined to take the advice with a pinch of salt. That said, I will endeavour to take on board at least some of Hurn’s workflow in plotting out and shooting the anti-fracking assignment.


Hurn, D. and Jay, B.(1997) On Being a Photographer. USA: Lenswork


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