create compelling photo stories

You can create compelling photo stories: 10 pros tell how

I’ve been thinking about the photo story a lot lately.

But how do you know one when you see it?

A photo story communicates a clear message without the use of extensive text. If you want to tell meaningful narratives with your images, first you need to fully grapple with the story you are telling. Like a good novel, a successful photo story will keep your audience anticipating the next part of the story.

Whether you’re documenting personal struggles, societal trends, or simply exposing your audience to unfamiliar landscapes, close observation of your subject is key to creating compelling photo stories.

So, how do you create a compelling photo story that also tells a clear and engaging story?

As you’ve probably guessed, there is no magic formula to follow. But there are proven ways to strengthen your storytelling skills. I recently created a free course to teach emerging photographers how to plan and execute a photo story in just one week.

You’ll learn how to choose a subject to work with, map out your story, and edit your photographs to tell a cohesive and involving story. The best part about the course is that you’ll have a completed photo story to share at the end of the week-long course!

The fact the course takes just a week to complete is no accident. So you don’t get stuck in the conceptualizing and planning steps, there’s just enough time to document your subject then edit and assemble your images into a refined story.

free photo course learn to tell a photo story

I want to make it clear that the one-week time frame is designed to have you move through all the steps of conceptualizing and orchestrating a photo story. I think there is value in quickly producing a project to get you thinking about your narrative. However, I am not claiming that every photo story should only take a week, and I usually prefer to work slowly, in order to deeply know my subjects.

This one-week course is an exercise to get you thinking and producing.

Besides taking my free course, how else can you begin to tell engaging stories with your photos? I find learning how other creatives work is really helpful. Their work habits and artistic approaches can be invaluable.

In fact, that’s why I started my series Q&A: Creatives Speak interviewing artists about their work.

Along similar lines, I asked nine lens-based artists, most from the documentary world, to share their hard-won wisdom with you for this article. Many of the creatives on my panel work in both still and motion photography and their ideas can be applied whether you are a photographer, filmmaker, or writer. I asked each to talk about the techniques that work best for them.

create compelling photo stories

Gabriela Bulišová

Gabriela Bulišová is a documentary photographer born in the former Czechoslovakia. She documents people affected by incarceration in the U.S. I first became aware of her work through the excellent blog, Prison Photography.

Gabriela and her partner Mark Isaac collaborated with their subject Taylar Nuevelle on a project about her traumatic childhood, later compounded by prison. Gabriela and Mark explain their collaborative process, “First, we photographed her and created digital negatives. Taylar then took the negatives and distressed them to represent her memories of abuse and mistreatment, both as a child and in prison.”

Currently, Gabriela is in Eastern Europe working on a long-term Fulbright-funded project with Mark.

Read more about Gabriela in my recent interview with her here.

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From A Climate of Change series: Our back to back Fulbright grants took us in 2017-18 to Ukraine and will take us in 2018-19 to Eastern Siberia. While the projects are 5 time zones away from each other, they have much in common. Both are focused on water that has been dramatically affected by climate change. In Siberia, we’ll focus on Lake Baikal, which is revered by the indigenous Buryat people as sacred. It contains a significant percentage of the world’s fresh water, is one of the places in the world that is most affected by global changes. As we travel to Siberia, we are pausing for few weeks in the 800-person village of Chl’aba, Slovakia, where my mother lives and where I spent my childhood summers. This has been a frequent stopping off point for us in our travels, and it is the subject of our longest project to date — “Returns” to my family, the natural beauty of the land at the confluence of the Danube and Ipel Rivers, and the changes the village has seen in the post-Communist era. The first thing we noticed about Chl’aba upon our latest return was how hot it was. Like a large swath of Europe, it was blasted with intense heat for weeks on end, with no rain. And the results were immediately apparent when we visited the family vineyard, where two-thirds of the grapes were withering, diseased, or gone. With neighbors gathered to assist with harvest, the chatter turned to the dates of harvests over time which used to take place in October, then shifted to September, but in recent years has occurred as early as late August. As we move closer to Lake Baikal, we are experiencing a change of climate. The hot weather of the American and European summer gave way to the first hints of a cooler autumn, foreshadowing the brutal cold of the far East that will be a central feature of our lives in the coming year. And at the same time, our stop in Chl’aba was a forceful reminder that climate change is with us now, in all parts of the globe. #siberia #lakebaikal #russia #project #documentary #climatechange #globalwarming #heat #border #harvest #wine #slovakia #hungary #danube #rivers #photography #series #change @markisa8

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create compelling photo stories

“It’s a bit hard for me to define my style and approach, particularly since it’s always evolving, but I attempt to break down the barriers between documentary and fine art photography. I embrace complex images, often relying on reflections, shallow depth of field or soft focus, and a level of abstraction.

Another hallmark is intimacy — my emphasis on getting to know subjects in depth is aimed at generating an authenticity in my image-making that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

And of course, I’m focused on giving voices to those who otherwise wouldn’t have one. I use these strategies in part because they come naturally for me, but also because I hope they will keep things quite fresh for my audience.”

Follow Gabriela Bulišová on Instagram.

create compelling photo stories

Mark Isaac

An artist and documentary storyteller, Mark often collaborates with his partner Gabriela Bulišová on projects that bridge the gap between fine art and documentary techniques. His aim is to expand awareness and engender meaningful change.

Read more about Mark in my recent interview with him here.

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A lone worker performs his duties in the middle of the cooking pools of the Southern Ukraine Energy Complex, which is requesting to raise the water levels behind Alexandrivsky Dam on the Southern Bug River from 16.0 meters to 20.7 meters. A unique coalition of veterans returning from the war in the Donbas region, environmentalists, academics, students and other concerned citizens is opposing the plan because it will threaten endangered plants and animals, limit recreational opportunities, and flood historic sites, such as the site where a Cossack church once stood on Gardove Island. The film God’s River, created together with @gabrielabulisova , explores this story, which has implications that go well beyond Mykolaiv Oblast and involve questions of Ukraine’s history, identity and future. The film will be screened on June 20 at Kinopanorama in Kyiv at 18:30, followed by a panel discussion with ATO veterans and environmentalists. Admission is free.

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create compelling photo stories

“Obviously, we’re all bombarded with a tremendous number of photos and videos every day. The latest estimate I saw suggests that as many as 14 trillion images are being created every year, with 300 million being created daily on Facebook alone. It’s a pretty tall order to stand out in that environment, but I think one thing that definitely helps is to have your own distinctive style, develop it over time and stick with it for the long term.

If your images just look like what we’ve come to expect of photojournalism or documentary photography, then people are going to swipe past them pretty quickly. So what you need to be striving for is a unique style and approach that has an element of surprise to it. That’s easier said than done, but it can be an aspiration for everyone who wants to break through to a wider audience and have an impact.”

Check out Mark Isaac on Instagram.

The next photographer I spoke with also mentioned that element of surprise.

create compelling photo stories

Pixy Liao

Pixy Liao is a Chinese artist who works in photography and film. In her project Experimental Relationship, she takes portraits of her boyfriend and herself, exploring the dynamics of their relationship.

create compelling photo stories

Pixy says, “My photos explore the alternative possibilities of heterosexual relationships. They question what is the norm of heterosexual relationships. What will happen if man & woman exchange their roles of sex and roles of power.”

“My suggestion is never take a photo that is absolutely normal. Take a photo where there’s something you don’t see, or when you don’t know what’s going on. That, in my opinion, is the key to making a photo interesting, and it should help you tell a story.”

Pixy speaks to the idea that you should always be reexamining why you’re taking the photo and if it’s the right time. Many of us use digital photography, so we have an almost unending supply of frames. But honing in on why you’re releasing the shutter is instrumental to making better images.

Follow Pixy Liao on Instagram.

Matt EichMatt Eich

U.S. photographer Matt Eich focuses on the intersection of family, community, and country, often photographing people in the South as well as his young family. The photos are tender and intimate.

Read my full interview with Matt here.

create compelling photo storiesMatt says, “The longer I work on creating photographic narratives (essays, stories, whatever you want to call them) the more I realize that I have no clue what is going on most of the time. Usually, when a client sends me to create work, it is with a very specific idea in mind (i.e. “Go to X and bring back Y”). While that is the budget-driven reality of most publications, it is counter to what good storytelling requires.

To get storytelling right, it requires moving slow, listening, asking questions, questioning yourself and your own biases. It requires patience, it requires failure, and it requires enough humility to acknowledge that we are all flawed human beings, and our medium is full of limitations. If I had to boil this down to a bite-sized tip, it would probably be: breathe … be patient, and throw your expectations out the window.

Rapper Kendrick Lamar has a more succinct answer to my rambling when he says, “Bitch, be humble!”

Check out Matt Eich on Instagram.

create compelling photo stories

Kasan Kurdi

Kasan Kurdi is an Indonesian photojournalist and videographer based in Yogyakarta. He covers environmental issues, natural disasters, as well as diverse traditional practices from different regions of Indonesia. A stringer for the Associated Press, he always seems to be working.

Environment issues are big for Kasan since he lives on Java, an island with about 150 million inhabitants. “This is the most densely populated island in the world. Intersecting everything else here are environmental and socio-cultural concerns.

One of the most important things when making a photo story is that you really understand the underlying issue behind the photos, because another photographer may have already approached the topic in a similar way, and you always want to avoid plagiarism or similarities in execution. Make sure the angle you take for each story will give a new depth of insight into the subject.

You will make your images stronger by always considering and speaking to your viewer’s emotions and feelings. Another important thing to remember is to maintain your distance, perspective, and neutrality when working with photo subjects because as a photographer, you will always be an outsider.”

Follow Kasan Kurdi on Instagram.


Remaining neutral may be important, but I think true neutrality is impossible. However, we can do our best to be open to new information, and approach our subjects by observing carefully. We open ourselves up to learning so many new things this way.

Isadora Kosofsky

Isadora Kosofsky sometimes spends years with her subjects. She focuses on the intimacy that this creates, noticing how the relationship between photographer and subject morphs.

At 14 Isadora began photographing people in hospice care and by 16 was documenting Romanian youth in prison, becoming the youngest journalist to work in a detention setting.

“I have learned lessons while photographing in people’s private spaces and sitting with them in their most intimate moments. One tip I can share is make work that is personal to you. Follow your intuition. The people you devote your time to as a documentarian should be seen as your teachers; they are showing you a hidden truth about your own humanity.”

One aspect of photojournalism that goes underrepresented is making an effort to focus on the essence of a person rather than the social markers of their obvious narrative. For the past 8 years, I have documented youth who have experienced incarceration, particularly focusing on individual families. In my practice, I see the individuals as families first, and incarcerated second. In media, there is an unfortunate propensity to assign labels to attract viewers, which tends to dilute nuance and limit identification. Similarly, when working with the aged communities, I wanted to document intimate relationships. I wanted to make sense of romance; I prized romance before aging in order to free the narratives from a delineated social label in the journalistic sphere.

I think a paradigm shift of ‘feel more, think less’ and letting your heart guide you to people will allow you, as a documentarian, to expand how you see those in front of you, ridding yourself of the categories that swallow nuance and make people’s lives appear too black and white. Human beings are complex; documentary should reflect that messiness.”

Follow Isadora Kosofsky on Instagram.

create compelling photo stories

Marko Randelovic

Marko Randelovic grew up in a British/Serbian family in the U.K. He can trace his interest in documentary-making back to when he was about 15 years old in the early 2000s. Marko created short films about how Serbian civilians were being bombed by NATO. He says, “Since then, I’ve always been motivated to create [documentaries] when something really important is at stake….”

One of his short documentaries is Sawah, about the last rice farmers on Bali, resisting developers. Marko also recently released Fighter, following a retired Muay Thai boxer who runs a gym in Pai, Thailand.

Marko is a self-taught filmmaker, and his documentaries are distinctive. I interviewed Marko for my series Q&A: Creatives Speak. Check out his interview out here.

Marko’s tip can be used by filmmakers and photographers alike

Although Marko shares a tip for documentary filmmakers, I think it can actually work in the reverse for photographers as well. More about that after you read what he has to say:

“My one tip to create a compelling documentary story is to treat it like a podcast or radio show. Take out all visual imagery and just listen to the story you have carved out as a standalone audio experience. Do you feel anything? Is there still enough depth in the documentary or was it relying too heavily on visuals to make it interesting?

If the audio alone is not engaging enough then I suggest you restructure the story in a way which makes it more compelling. You have to think about teasing the audience with positive and happy emotions before introducing something a little sad. Consider the pacing of each soundbite and how long you give the audience to reflect and digest important parts of the narrative.

With documentaries, as opposed to photography, you are blessed with the ability to use audio. Use it wisely and make it your story’s foundation. Powerful imagery is very important too and can tell its own story at the same time but the magic of a documentary is that you don’t need the best camera, the greatest production or most expensive editing software. If you have a great story, and tell it in a compelling way you can make something amazing.”

How does this help photographers?

I think Marko’s tip can work for still photographers, as well. Instead of focusing on audio, take a look at your photos critically when assembling your photo story. Try to imagine not knowing the people you’ve been photographing. Are the important parts of their story clear? Do you need to hone the visual storytelling by reordering the images or taking more photos to strengthen it?

Follow Marko Randelovic on Instagram.

create compelling photo stories

Ross Taylor

Ross is an American photojournalist and professor whom I first met through The Image Deconstructed Workshop in Colorado a few years ago. He spoke with impressive vulnerability about documenting war in a trauma hospital in Afghanistan.

Responding to my query, he says, “I always concentrate on focusing on my own motivation. If I can better understand my motivation, and if it comes from a pure and honest space, it’s much easier for me to convey that to others. I’ve found time and time again, if I can be clear in my purpose to others, and if it’s within an ethical construct, that people will allow me into their lives.

Within this, I also spend a lot of time thinking about verbal and body language. I try to use concise and clear verbiage to people while conveying my intent. It’s important to also hear people, not just listen. I work within the assumption that most people want to be heard, and if they feel heard, they’ll allow me into their life. All of this works within the broader umbrella of understanding my own motivation. It’s the cornerstone of almost all that I do.”

Follow Ross Taylor on Instagram.

Joey and one of his friends

Joey Rositano

Joey Rositano, an American, became fascinated with shamanism practices on Jeju Island off the southernmost tip of South Korea and has been investigating them for eight years. He’s a self-taught documentary filmmaker/photographer. He created a photo book about Jeju’s shamanic shrines and just released the first installment of a three-part documentary called Spirits, The Story of Jeju Island’s Shamanic Shrines. See my interview with Joey here.

What strikes me about Joey is his curiosity, even about the most obscure things. I think this curiosity has served him well in researching shamanism, and I am not surprised by the advice he offers below.

create compelling photo stories

“When working on documentary projects, a helpful hint is to not limit the sphere of the conversation topic by sticking to a set list of questions before you go into the interview. Often the things that people feel most compelled to talk about will lead to more interesting areas. Stay open and curious.

If you are interviewing an expert in a field, liven things by injecting your own curiosity. Perhaps take the subject into an area of their field they weren’t necessarily expecting to go into. If it doesn’t work, back away and let the conversation change its course. Put yourself in the subject’s shoes and try to understand where they are coming from and why. Once you gather the material, it’s a matter of editing everything together in an effective way.”

Follow Joey Rositano on Instagram.

I think Joey makes a good point that rigidity could prevent you from finding the juiciest parts of the story, so incorporating improvisation into your approach with subjects is useful.

And without further ado, since it’s my blog and all, and yes, I’m a photographer, I’d like to have a go at the question as well.


Willow Paule

I think the key is to be true to your own personal style of interacting with the people you photograph. You don’t have to have a specific personality type to be a photographer. Be confident in your approach. It’s taken me time to understand this.

I recognize that some journalists have to get in and out quickly, yet they can still tell a factual and compelling story. However, since I am an introvert who needs time to get to know people, I found that this style just didn’t work best for me when trying to make deep and meaningful photographs of people.

What does work for me, is repeated visits to my photo subjects, making sure we are comfortable with each other. I don’t want them to feel I’m judging them or manipulating their story, so that time is very important for me.

Would you like to learn more about making engaging photo stories?  Sign up for my free course How To Create A Compelling Photo Story In One Week. Because this email course is only one week long, it works as a manageable exercise to hone your storytelling skills.

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As Bob Marley sang, there is so much trouble in the world. It's all overwhelming sometimes. How do we stay centered when it feels like there's bad news and unfairness everywhere we turn? – The recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Palu, Sulawesi have been weighing on my mind. At last count 1407 people are dead, and 70,000 displaced. Hospitals are overwhelmed and people are hurt and hungry. – If your heart moves you to help, please donate through You can find a link to donate on their page. – Meanwhile, our lives go on. I only watch disturbing news at certain times of the day. Not to be oblivious but protecting myself as a sensitive person. I try to avoid too much right when I wake up because it seems to set the tone for my day. I want to continue positively contributing to the world, without being immobilized by sadness. – This photo is from one of the good things I experienced in the last few months. I photographed dancer @karennekoo's trip to Yogyakarta to teach dance to diverse communities. Karenne's says, 'Everyone can dance.' – As I took photos of the dancers, I looked out the window and this bush was dancing in the wind. I'll be sharing some photographs from that time in the coming days. – . . . . . #burnmagazine #documentaryphotography #visualstories #dearphotographer_mag #disasterrelief #disasterreliefefforts #gempapalu #tsunamipalu #portraitsofpeople #people_infinity_ #findingthelight #1000kata #artofvisuals #willowpaulephoto #documentaryIndonesia #photostorytelling #beautifulindonesia #documentary_photography #ringoffire #livecreativelife #journeytoartist #creativesspeak #creativeinspirationdaily #calledtobecreative

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10 lens-based creators with diverse viewpoints

When I look at all the information here, I really love all the varied approaches and tips these lens-based experts have shared. To recap, I made a graphic highlighting some of the important points, that they made above. Plus, you can’t beat that straight to the point advice from Kendrick Lamar :-).

create compelling photo stories

What do you think? Are any of their ideas getting you thinking about new ways to approach creating compelling photo stories? What can you take away from the tips they’ve shared? Leave a comment below.

Create a compelling photo story in one weekWant to learn more about creating engaging photo stories?

Learn to create a compelling photo story in only one week by signing up for my FREE email course.
You’ll learn to choose a good story idea, create a clear narrative, and put together a compelling photo story.
The best part is after the week, you’ll have a finished body of work to submit to an exhibit, share on social media, or print for your walls.
Sign up here.