Creating and Placing A Photo Essay

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The following is a guest post by Jim Ross, whose visual art appeared in issue 19 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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I came late to writing nonfiction and doing photography with intent to publish. I quickly realized, I wanted to tell stories combining my words and photos. I’ve had more success submitting nonfiction pieces with embedded photos—a handful or a bunch—than with calling them photo essays. Shooting photos, selecting and organizing, researching, writing text, and publishing has typically taken years.

Seeing a homeless (current preferred term: houseless) man with dog on a bridge in Paris, I snapped his picture. In the next few years, I took many more in America and throughout Europe, especially France. I talked with dogs and humans. A friend in Paris explained that having a dog protected the homeless from arrest because police don’t want the obligation of housing the dog in a “dog hotel.” She also said many vets provide free services to dogs of the houseless. I talked with a researcher from IFAW about her project focused on homeless youth who had dogs. I talked with the program the director of the American Pets of the Homeless about efforts to provide food and vet services. I reviewed research on the houseless human/dog relationship.

Meantime, I kept taking photos and began writing. I tied in my own experience hiking in the Midi-Pyrenees and having a German shepherd tag along for eleven hours, during which she saved me from a charging cow and I later saved her life too. The text showed how having a dog created a bridge between the houseless and housed passersby, who first begin petting the dog, then talk with the homeless person, and come to see them as caring humans. The dog also keeps the houseless human on the straight and narrow. Balancing photos by gender and country, I made only glancing references to particular images, except for one black male carrying a sign, “Homeless broke nomadic folk.” He said, “I’m done with the United States. I think I’ll try Russia next.” I asked, “Have you been to Canada yet?” He asked, “Do they have farms?”

Over 12 months, I ended up negotiating with three different print journals. I gave them all a 2,500 word text with 15 photos. They all embraced the text without changes. The first two were willing to publish only four or five black-and-white photos. Kestrel finally agreed to publish nine full-color images as “Street Dogs and Their Human Companions.”

Recently, I decided to do a photo essay about walking The Way of Saint James in France. I selected 47 photos, outlined the text in ten sections—such as getting lost, lodging, food, water, companionship. I narrowed the photos down to 23. Then, I wrote a 4,500 word text and, with help from friends, arrived at the final 12. New World Writing accepted it overnight and published it three hours later as, “Escaping into Pilgrimage.”

When I’m out, my camera is always with me. I often begin taking lots of photos of similar subjects. Eventually I realize, I’m working on another photo essay.

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Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after leaving public health research. He’s since published nonfiction, poetry, and photography in over 140 journals and anthologies in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. Publications include Columbia Journal, Ilanot Review, Lunch Ticket, The Atlantic, The Manchester Review, and Typehouse. Recent photo essays include Barren, Kestrel, Litro, New World Writing, So It Goes, and Wordpeace. A nonfiction piece led to a role in a high-profile documentary limited series to be broadcast over U.S. and international networks. Jim and his wife—parents of two health professionals and grandparents of five preschoolers—split their time between city and mountains.  

  

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