How to Write a Photo Essay

I’ve never been a photographer. It’s a shame, really, the way we carry cameras around with us at all times; a moment captured at the tap of the finger, anywhere, anytime. It could not be easier to collect photographs from the world around us, and yet, time and time again I find myself going through the motions of life without thinking to pause for a minute and take a picture. My camera roll is essentially screenshots of text conversation and notes I missed from class.

But wait — isn’t the uncanny availability of technology what we’re afraid of? Isn’t photography being depleted by selfies and portrait mode and filters and photoshop? I know a lot of people who would say they go through the motions of life taking the pictures and forgetting to look at the sunset, not vice versa. But for some reason, even with my face-sized iPhone in my hand, I go through life un-photographed.

Here’s the thing about running: we’re always in motion. I’ve found that it’s hard to capture the essence of the sport in a photograph. It’s hard to capture the human breath in a picture, or the heartbeat.

Here’s the thing about words: I use them, a lot. I like the way they swirl together and drift apart, the way I can untangle and rethread them. I like to sew sounds together, to paint stories.

But how do we tell a story without words? How do I capture myself running through life with my lips sealed and eyes open? How do I tell a story in pictures? I’ve never been a photographer, but I am a writer. Now I’m starting to think I can be both.

When you Google “How to Write a Photo Essay” different links come up. However, most of them don’t use the word “write” at all. The headlines use words like “create” or “make”. But I’m determined to WRITE this. I’m determined to use pictures to tell a story, to untangle and weave, to evoke and illustrate. And I’m trying to write about running. I think I want to tell my story, or more broadly, our story, the story of my family and my team, the story of why we do what we do. It’s the most brutal of moments to capture, the most raw. The most human act, instinctual and painful and freeing.

Lynsey Mattingly of digital-photography-school.com wrote what I found most inspiring throughout my internet search: “As a photographer, you are a storyteller. The nouns are your subject matter; the verbs are the color and contrast that keep the story moving. A cast of characters all working together to get your point across. Instead of proper grammar, you ensure proper exposure. Instead of spelling errors, you watch for tack-sharp focus. For those times when the story is especially important and meaningful, or for when one image doesn’t say it all, there is the photographic essay.”

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