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Pivotal Essays

Lesson 2 from: Create Powerful Photo Essays & Personal Projects

David H Wells

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Lesson Info

2. Pivotal Essays

Lesson Info

Pivotal Essays

So let's talk about a photo essay personal project as interchangeable term but there's a very specific reason that I use the word photo essay okay so let's define a photo essay can we agree on what a photo is? Thank you very much it's usually a joke people laugh you also serious come on, relax can we define what a photo is laugh ok better thie object of the game is to define an essay we have to actually come up to an agreement on what? An essayist and personal project photo essay largely the same but in a minute here I think you're going to say ok so that's what he means by it all right, so it actually is a it's a word that comes from the french as in the word essay or essay with e ora se as in to trial it to test or weigh it. Another definition is to try to make it an effort in attempt cindy was writing notes I'm glad that's how good a testing or trial of the value of something we know it s a typically is a personal commentary on what a specific subject means and we know that it usual...

ly is a literary composition on a single subject presenting the view of the author and that's where the word essay comes from for our purposes okay again to define essay the best photo essays communicate an idea that others can understand with minimal explanation and certainly without your presence the whole idea behind any photo essay is that you're not there to say to the person looking at the work this is what I mean that's what I want you to look at either they get in there they don't so to go back to some of the questions about how do you use existing work to make a good photo s say the first thing it has to be edited so person who sees it gets it another one is there are broadly two kinds of photo essays there's what's known as a linear photo essay which is when you have character evolution or the development of the characters in progress a lot of films a lot of great literature is built around the idea of linear character development kid gets up kid goes to school something it happens at school he has an epiphany so there's there's character evolution and that's a linear photo essay the other kind of photo essay is a portable portfolio excusing which is unified by the commonality of location or style or the approach the photography one is not better or worse than the other but there the typical frameworks of a photo essay an important thing to understand every time I say something up here it's ninety five percent true and there's five percent when you could say well you could kind of the size it and change it a little but I'm putting this up here so you start thinking of all right so is my port my project to be more of a linear thing as in having evolution of character development or is it really mohr focused as a portfolio again? One is not better than the other but it's one of the first decisions you make especially going forward but also when you're editing retrospectively okay, so how I define a photo essay is to try out an idea from a personal point of view and that's often times the difference being a photo story in a photo essay is the idea of that point of view so when you're starting to create your photo essays you should be starting to think about okay? So what's the point of view and against you go back to great literature great film, great music we don't goto watch movies to just sort of watch the flat when we do actually watch movies the flowers growing in and cats but most of time we go because you want to see the point of view we want to understand the author's experience what's the story they have to tell so that idea of a point of view is really, really important so I'm going to take you through a couple of my personal projects and keep in mind that idea of the photo essay this is a project I did in nineteen eighty eight, eighty nine it's on the pesticide poisoning of farm workers in the central valley of california and the stories about agricultural chemicals and farm workers and how those chemicals affect farm workers, especially their children. The person on the left is what's called the flag er she uses that this at sunrise she's using a flashlight or a flag to tell the plane where it started stop spring and the story of course is about agricultural chemicals another flag er getting newt and these chemicals of course are in the air and the water obviously they impact the children in the environment families people's lives there on the image of seeing now is actually called trimming. They start to spray before they enter the field in order to get the corners and what the heavy use of pesticides in the central valley california tends to result in and this is not my opinion was actually verified by a study by the university of washington school public health is elevated incidences of childhood cancers and birth defects and so this is ahh woman and helen garrett's he's polishing the grave of her daughter this's a woman named sofia buentello visits the grave of her granddaughter of the saturday morning and we're driving home after her weekly visit girl named laura gonzalez receiving chemotherapy this is also laura gonzalez her brother was afraid to come in the same hospital room with her which is why he's outside the hospital room she's not contagious, but he was afraid this is her mother resorted gonzalez and so during the time I was doing this story, the two things I saw were these elevated incidences of childhood cancers, most of which, unfortunately were fatal and birth defects. If you count the fingers here is one missing this little boys name philippe a franco he's. Developmentally perfectly normal. He would be in his late thirties by now he has the worst example of what's called lim production defect it's a technical name for this his mother was most likely exposed to this pesticide that we've been talking about during the first trimester of pregnancy. And one of the many obscure things that I learned on this project was, of course, how dangerous pesticides are two pregnant women home pesticides apparently doing first trimester pregnancy are you really dangerous? We know about things like german measles. Did you know about cat feces? I learned about that one. Apparently pregnant mothers are supposed to be exposed to cat feces. Um, so I did this story again on fleet on all of the farmers, especially focusing on these most extreme examples of this limber ducks and defect and this was an attempted a crucifix metaphor for the largely catholic farm worker population. I hope you like to work again don't say oh it's photojournalism it doesn't apply to me that's not the question that's why we're not here. We're here for this part so did that try out an idea from the author's point of view you had already so okay, good did that? Did it communicate an idea? And yes, I know I was explaining it, but did you get most of the idea without the explanation? Okay, was it linear portfolio this's the interactive part, by the way, need an answer? Lawrence has gone. You can go either way, my painting can go either way because it's centered around it kind of centered around one person a supposing I think it was ms gonzalez was one of one of the families whose organs all right, and then at the same time it also kind of centered around the whole thing of, you know, pesticides and how it, you know, went towards birth defects and cancers and all that stuff. So the way that I shot it and your points exactly correct the way that I shot it was a series of linear stories about these families which, because of space and considerations, got added into a larger portfolio, the theme of pesticides and how it impacts people is the larger thing, but it was, in fact, precisely a siri's of small stories hey did I tell you something about my expectations spath passion and skill set hope so and did show you work it would be interested in knowing more about so what was my idea? What was my point of view? I'm going to go the other interest your idea was too taken issue that you were concerned about and show from start to finish what what's happening and hopefully change you know maybe people change and cause and effect I mean agreed I actually would go to more sort of basic level I was really just trying to humanize the experience of the people who were affected okay okay that's your absolute correct I did all of those things but at a more base level I was really trying to say look at these people this is how their lives live especially look these kids frankly because they are completely that it happened to them there was they don't have any responsibility there literally exposed when they're being cared by their mothers and this is the result. And so I was trying to say this is their experience and then it goes on the other things and when you're looking at any kind of personal project you really want to keep asking that question and I'll reinforces by doing this again in the next a little little bit of time is what was the idea? What was the point of view and try to be ableto enunciate that to say that out loud. So when you going forward with your project and looking at other people's projects, you can actually do the same thing. All right? This particular project was actually triggered by fundraising letter that I got from the farm workers union, which showed the little boy with norms and no legs. Okay? And I'm not being at all insensitive or something, but you look at that and you say, if that's really true, if that's what's really going on it's not because the farmers union tells me he's going on because I went out there, I did a bunch of research, did a whole bunch of reading. I became something of an expert on epidemiology and birth defects, not formally, but I meant red so much and so yeah, it really is going on there's really a story there, so I went out and started to do that. I applied for a grant in nineteen, eighty seven and I did not get it, and this is one of those you really want to make make a note, write this down. A couple things that I learned about that is that I was a finalist, so when you apply for a grant or you apply for almost any of this anointing where these end users are going to select you if at any point in time, some did he send you back of rejection letter there's kind of three rejection letters, dear generic applicant, we generically reject you. Okay, dear. Top twenty, you made in the top twenty, but we didn't give it to you or dear finalists. You were one of the three, but in the end, we gave it to somebody else. And I got the deer finalist. You were one of three and I got a hand written note from a guy named bill actually on and said, you know, you were really close, and the lesson is that I applied that time with a written proposal without pictures. So sort of if there's a big lesson here, what I learned from that was that I needed to show them that there really are kids with norms and the legs because of pesticides. I need to go out there and photograph it on my own. So I actually went to the central valley, california, and I sell funded week of shooting on my own so I could get those pictures so I could send them in the next year. The next year actually got the grant and I was able to finish the project. And so the lessons are a if you ever finalist for something where somebody actually says, you know, you were close that's really important that's almost as good as getting the money because it means that you're honing in on the right thing and then the other thing is a lot of times you have to make photographs to show them that the thing can be photographed I can come up with all sorts of great ideas I want to go to mars right you got that one all right in nineteen eighty eight I won the grant that I did not win in nineteen, eighty seven and I was able to use the money through nineteen eighty eight nineteen eighty nine and I stayed with my sister who lived in the central valley of california and so I had a place to stay and so all I basically needed was to pay for film you've heard of film it's a primitive technology that to pay for film and airfare to go back and forth in a rental car so the money actually lasted me about a year and a half um it was subsequently published by the philadelphia inquires sunday magazine and numerous other publications that was also exhibited widely and remember I talked about this idea of the larger milieu at this time I wasn't smart enough to understand what I had done by utter and complete dumb luck and I'm hoping you won't have to wait rely and dumb luck in the future but by dumb luck I put this work out there at the time that whole foods and the organic food movement all the stuff that's really pretty much a part of our food discussion now was just starting to pick up uh pick up steam and so it got used a lot in connection with what's now become the organic food movement that was not intentional, but in hindsight it worked out very well but that's that idea of the larger milieu, how can you take what you're doing and fitted in there makes an enormous difference, so I was able to get it published, exhibited and it won a whole bunch of awards along the way, which becomes part of the narrative that I have is a photographer stuff that I can show people so here's some examples of how it was published by the philadelphia inquirer sunday magazine and they did a very nice job publishing it. I was one of the there was a woman named victoria who did the final writing, but she and I collaborated on the writing. He was subsequently used by a bunch of other magazines this magazine called self this was in california magazine of obvious regional interest out there and then the philadelphia inquirer sunday magazine who did the first publication that you saw that asked me to go and do research for a similar story in new jersey and briefly the sort of outcome of the story in new jersey was that the farm worker population in new jersey so mobile you couldn't necessarily have the kind of cause and effect you had in california, but what we did find in terms of cause and effect was actually the home pesticide issue, which, if you don't know now, if you're the first trimester of pregnancy and your woman the first time you were pregnant, you really want to stay away from home pesticides because apparently they're just is harmful to you and your child as the pesticides in california where so I did this for the philadelphia choir sunday magazine this's the cover story and so to go back to this idea of people looking you saying this is what you can do uniquely and then a magazine called me up and they said that was a great story we really want to run in our magazine, but our magazines all in color, I said, well, I'm sorry to the all black and white, and I like to think the black and white added to the power and, well, actually talk about the black and white color choice later in class they said, well, that's, why we pay you to go and shoot it again when you mentioned my exact yeah, that was that was a lot of fun, so that's, one of the kinds of work that I do and I still get people who call me to do work like that that's one of those things that distinguishes me that we're going to be working to help you distinguish yourself the other thing that I do is I do what I call light studies and the's air photo essays on the light an atmosphere of different places this is thirtieth street station in philadelphia how do you see the movie witness harrison ford and kelly mcgillis when they were young and pretty at the beginning of the movie a young pennsylvania amish kid comes in from central pennsylvania and he's never been in the big city and walks into this building and he looks around he's amazed and then he witnesses a murder and it goes on from there but having grown up in southern california when I moved to philadelphia this is incredible the building in the southern california my childhood were largely suburban and yeah so I went to the philadelphia inquirer sunday magazine and said I want to do a photo essay on this building it's nothing political about it it's just to me this magical space you shaking your head so I something tells me you're getting it and to me it's all about the play of light and shadow in this magical place this is the train station from high up in a building few blocks away this is when you could still smoke in a public place we'll talk a lot I will talk about this week about what I call the photo god's photo gods you know the photo gods are the pictures about pictures about to come together, all the elements coming together and you say to god, please, please, I'll be really nice to the dog next week if you give me this one, right? So I'm in a train station in the guy in the front of the lines got that great hat on and this is a long time ago and somebody actually lights up a cigarette behind that's the photograph having grown up in southern california, I didn't know that busy one of busiest days of the year to train station the northeast is the day before thanksgiving, so I learned that I sell this one is both editorial publication and a lot of fine art prints people seemed somehow confused thirtieth street with the old penn station in new york, which was torn down. I'm on the fifth floor catwalks looking straight down at the very end of the day, photographing these magical long shadows and these air palm prints and fingerprints and oil for people's hands backlit on a glass store at the very end of the day so again the same question a question you should basically from now on any time you see a set of work, you should ask yourself the same question did that try out an idea from a personal point of view. Did it give you a new idea? We communicated idea with minimal explanation? Was it linear portfolio this one's a portfolio? Because there's not any obvious character development, did it taste thing about the author's passion, expertise and skills, especially the skill set? I like to think so. Thank you and show you were could be interested in knowing more about and seymour off. So again, what was my idea? And what was my point of view? A question from the chat room, if you please. Fantastic, so this's going back a little bit, but I thought it was pretty appropriate for what we're talking about, johnny would like to know was part of your our party or projects designed to expose the issues and the impacts on the farmers? Or were you covering something that was well known? It was it's it started out with this the story of sleeping, frank, of the young boy with the birth defects, and then I started to after doing all this research, understanding this isn't a one time thing it's sort of all over the farm workers is an issue has been well photographed, as you probably know, but I actually hadn't seen a lot of work on this particular topic. And unfortunately, the situation is largely continued to this day, it has changed the whole lot, so I started out with one idea about the farm workers, and it evolved to be about this particular thing, and I'm going to use his gesture lot here's another gesture, I guarantee a cz you start talking about your projects to me, you're going to start talking about your project being here to here, and I'm pretty sure it's going to end up over here to here, which isn't bad, but my experience with that one and it's true with all of my projects is if you don't, if you probably doesn't change from when you started tow, when you finish, you're not working hard enough, and this is a perfect example. I had an idea but actually went out there, and the reality on the ground was very different than what I had in mind, so we'll talk a lot about what you hope to do, what your aspirations are, but when you start photographing, you're going to find the reality on the ground is different. That was my experience out there great had one idea, and I ended up executing another great and william oh would like to know, do I have to gain permission to shoot in a place like the thirtieth street station in philly? Well, the short answer was in nineteen eighty six it was a simple, simple permission thing. You talked to the guy who the manager of the station post nine eleven and on the east coast it's a lot harder. Unfortunately, I from my experience has been it's one thing to sort of run around and take snaps everywhere, but if you actually go to somebody and say, I've got somebody behind me, I incredible I've done this work before all the third party validation that we've been talking about, you're going to be building if I go to somebody with that validation, their pride likely say, yeah, if I don't have any of that. Unfortunately, I'm in a severe disadvantage great and mary j is asking about releases, but we are going cover that later. We're going to do releases in great detail it's a very important topic and I'm looking for two coming back to but just so we can get everything covered over three days will come back to that and also what's really cool is part of our bonus with purchase we're including a release form has some information on relief, some samples of these forms that I use over these exactly great thank you sir, please go wrong so I'm gonna pick on one of you two who wants to go first what's the question again you are asking what the yeah, the train station story it was the lighting in the thirtieth street station that structure okay, different times a day again one of the key things about when you kind of defined these in terms of looking at the people's work is to try to actually come down to almost a more simple definition of the definition I use is it literally it's a love song? I love that place okay? And yes, you can absolutely correct we'll go forward from there, but at its core I wanted you to connect to the people who had that experience with the pesticide project in this case I want you to have the same love for that building that I have it's okay? And the other thing is we'll talk about later in the week the idea of an elevator pitch which is this idea of really simplifying it so you're end user gets it right away that's a good elevator pitch you can get that right away. All right, so some examples of how it was used the thirty the philip inquire sunday magazine published it like this it's a six page spread in the magazine was actually the first thing that I did for the philadelphia choirs sunday magazine over ten year period from eighty six to ninety six I actually did sixteen stories for them and then there was an article about me as the photographer of the station, which again goes to this third party validation thing that we need to keep talking about, and obviously they used a lot of pictures and I still meet people from philadelphia, and I say, oh, yeah, I was in the days I remember that because the magazine, sadly, like most sunday magazines, doesn't exist anymore, which goes to our larger problem, which is now we're gonna be talking over the next couple days about what are the new outlets because the old outlets don't exist anymore, which is good in bed. So that's, the thirtieth street station story, which was really pivotal story for me, both in terms of things like learning how to use light and shadow to go back to your point. But also this became really important for me again recently because I contacted a guy named jimmy colton who used to be at sports illustrated and at newsweek about online journalist he was running writing, and he wrote me back this this is what you want, this's kind of what you're paying the money for. Let me get out of the way, he wrote me. I remember you fondly from back in the day you were always one of my favorite creative people with strength and black and white and composition from what I call from philly. Fifteen twenty years later, somebody remembers that story. That's what you're looking for, it's not about the train station pictures it's about what can you do that they will remember another letter and I won't make you read all this will stop it. This one briefly though this is a summary from that same letter, a photo editor had actually seen the israeli palestinian project that I'm going to show you later before I contacted him. So I come in, I contact him, I said, I want to talk about doing some work for you. He's turned into one of my favorite clients and you write them back and says, oh, yeah, I already know your name from that's what we're trying to do and then this is the most recent example of this. I send out a newsletter in my promotion will talk about social media and promotion and newsletters, and I got a nice email back from a woman who said, oh, I enjoyed your newsletter, and if you read the top line, keep me posted next time in san francisco, maybe we can drum up a project to work on, right? These are just a few examples, and I won't. Bore you with this. I'm not trying to brag, but I'm trying to say this is the point of the exercise. You make the work, you get it out there, you get known for it. It starts to take on a life of its own. It moves you if the top of that pyramid much quicker than anything else can.

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Ratings and Reviews


First off, I was a photo assistant for a few years to a photographer who did numerous multi-day workshops. This was my first time as a student sitting in on a webinar that actually kept me interested. Sometimes I'm turned off by the pace of the teacher, his or her voice, or the manner in which they disseminate the information. But this was truly fantastic. David showed lots of his work in a way that was NOT egotistical in any sense (something that does happen quite often). I was utterly impressed by the quality of his work, the wealth of knowledge he has on the world, culture and politics, and how he shoots "on the go". All of those qualities are essential parts to creating a great photo essay/story. I came into this seminar needing inspiration and in the end I have more ideas than I know what to do with. David's work is truly magnificent; his photo stories pertain to people and their struggles, which really could be something any one of us could go through at any point, but he shows it in a way that is beautiful - either beautifully desperate or beautifully destructive - instead of in an exploitative way. On a side note, he also offered up a lot of great information having to do with funding, exposure, workflow, time efficiency, income streams, releases... you won't find this a lot with other photographers. You will find the "go find the info yourself" attitude. This has been my problem as of late with photography - we don't work together as artists, we work against each other competing for what, I'm not sure. David's seminar seemed to embrace photography as the art form it is, and shared with us the tools that we as artists need to really understand and utilize in order to get our story out there. A story it seems he really wants to see/hear. Just an amazing "Thank You"!!!!

a Creativelive Student

I have purchased a number of classes on Creative Live. This class taught by David Wells is one of the best. David is a thorough teacher, personal and connects with his students. Along with his superb and inspiring imagery David talked about his experiences in getting funding, his workflow, developing his stories and distributing his work. David is talented, generous and an excellent teacher. Highly recommended class.

Anjani Millet

Just completed the course. Fantastic, practical information on everything from grant writing, finding foundations, proposal development, even how to shake hands overseas. I am not sure where else I would have found this information for photographers. So appreciate it. One friend asked if this would be worth watching for anyone outside the US and the answer is a definitive yes. Very happy I purchased, and already starting to implement.

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