All Photos taken with a Leica M6ttl and a Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron on Kodak 400CN film. All Photos from the photo essay, “The Faces of Transcarpathia.” By Andrew J. Tonn ©
MONTERREY — Most photographers have favorite subjects and preferred themes. Some are obvious and others less so. One person shoots flowers and selfies. Another also photographs flowers and themselves but, as with any art, the subject is not always just the subject. Robert Mapplethorpe’s beautiful black and white studies of calla lilies and tulips are far from ordinary photos of pretty flowers and Graciela Iturbide’s self-portraits are far more than another reflexive selfie.
The old saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. There is often a lot of truth in old sayings but this one is mostly useless. Photos and words are utterly different methods of describing something. They are, as well, the most complementary of art forms because neither one can tell the whole story but together they can get close. A photo without retouching can still lie, even if the intent was to show the truth. On some level, the written word, when practiced well and with honesty, can be far more accurate than a photo. Take, for example, Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize winning 1968 photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a man through the head during the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive. It is a famous photo of an undeniably brutal moment. The image came to be used as an icon of the anti-war movement but Adams later came to say he wished he’d never taken the photo and that the story behind it needed to be told. The photo appears as if a soldier is executing an innocent, captured civilian. The man being shot, however (later identified as Nguyen Van Lem) was the leader of a Viet Cong death squad who had murdered not only South Vietnamese police officers but their families as well, and had been essentially caught in the act. Adams later said, “The General killed the Viet Cong; I killed the General with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths…”
Think, as well, about the memes you have seen and the images chosen to accompany articles. Do you see villainy in the face of a politician you already want to hate when he has a sly or stupid expression on his face? Do you see heroism in a politician you want to like, when he is photographed standing in front of the flag? Do you consider the politics of the photographer or, perhaps more importantly, the editor, when you take any given photo for a true representation? If you watch video of a press conference you can hear the DSLRs firing away, capturing upwards of 15 frames a second. An editor can pick any micro-expression they wish to, expressions all of us make over the course of a few minutes, as they can also pick and chose the words that someone says, leaving out the key clarifications and explanations that complete thoughts, policies, and ideas. All too often, a single, illustrative photo, without adequate or forthright explanation, is as capable of lying as the smoothest con man. The devil, after all, can quote scripture.
“Be willing to go where a story leads you and to change your own ideas if you find the facts don’t back them up.”
Think on these ideas as you start on the last of these five tasks to make you a better photographer. This is to shoot a photo-essay. By a photo-essay I mean an ordered series of photos that tell a story. I would encourage you to print these photos and play with their arrangement. I typically print full frame images on 8 by 10 inch paper. Print them yourself on an inkjet or wherever is cheapest or most convenient. Print more than the final series will show. Store them in a portfolio book, or box then learn to arrange them in a sequence that shows what you want to show. Learn to let images go, even ones you like very much but that, finally, distract from the overall story.
Your photo essay can be about anything that interests you, anything you are involved in. The story telling does not need to be in linear fashion, in the order you shot the images, though it certainly can be. It need not be about Viet Cong death squads or heroin addicts or police brutality. Contrary to common belief a photo-essay can have a happy subject and you need not take up heavy drinking, use grainy black and white film, buy a Leica, or have a two-pack a day cigarette habit to shoot one. Many famous photo-essays are, of course, serious examples of social documentary and in general the world is a better, more informed place because of them. We admire the photojournalist who risks his or her life to bring us stories about the war in Syria or of the gangs of Central America, who deprives themselves of the comforts of normal life to show us the ravages of the opioid epidemic or the migrant crisis in Europe. And if you have an idea for such a story then I highly advise you to begin. If a story is important enough to tell then don’t wait. The moments that make up those stories are fleeting and if you believe the story needs to be told then start telling it. One of the great falsehoods is that you will be given funding to pursue a story just because you think it’s important. It happens, but almost always to established photographers. You are far more likely to get assistance with a project that has already been started, one you show your ability and passion for by working on because you believe in it. Very often images within even an international story can be found close to home. Don’t put off beginning because the whole will take time. Many photographers, myself included, have projects and stories they will work on for years, perhaps their entire lives, revisiting places and themes over and over, finding different angles (both literal and metaphorical) each time.
Even if you have absolutely zero desire to be a photojournalist, even if you just want to take pretty pictures of sunsets, your photography will improve by learning to tell a story with it. As with all the other exercises, this one is about intention, direction, and commitment. It is about thinking about why you are doing a thing, how you are doing it, and what you hope to accomplish. It is about pushing your craft into places that allow it to evolve.
A photo-essay can be about nearly anything. It can tell the story of someone (including yourself). It can describe a place or an element of a place or something happening in a place. It can explain a social or political issue. It can involve the work of a charity or other organization. The photos in it can be action shots, portraits, landscapes, still-life photos, or pretty much any other genre in any combination. They simply have to go together, in a sequence, to tell a story, to explain something visually.
It is possible to shoot a modest photo-essay in an afternoon but I would challenge you to take some time, to make it a longer-term project. Take the time to look at your images, to think about them, to think about ones that need to be added to the series. By all means write something to go with them. Don’t worry about sounding like a writer. Write the way you would tell your friend a story. Take photos the way you would tell your friend a story. Most of all, however abstract or concrete your approach, do your best to be honest. There are too many photographers and writers and journalists out there lying. Don’t be one of them. Be willing to go where a story leads you and to change your own ideas if you find the facts don’t back them up. Seek the light. Seek the truth. Tell it. FP