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  • Laura Paton

Developing your photo documentary story idea

Who does’t love a good story? Stories are important to the human experience because they help us make meaning of our lives and the events that shape our world. A good story can ignite our imagination or have the power to transform our perception of other cultures or ideas. Since the invention of the camera, photographers have used pictures to preserve facts and tell the stories of our human existence and social evolution. In this quickly changing world, the work of documentary photographers will never be complete.

Documentary photography is one of the most challenging but also most rewarding genres of photography because in order to produce a really good story you have you put your whole heart and soul into your project. Every photographer has a story to tell. Since my blog last week you may have done some soul-searching to come up with your story idea. Now it’s time to narrow down your subject and begin the process of developing your story.

Let’s say for example, you have decided you want to do create a photo documentary about trains. The subject “TRAINS” is somewhat vague, however, you could go in many different directions with this topic. The first step to developing your subject idea is to make a list of all the different angles you can think of pertaining to trains. Your first few entries on your list may look something like this:

The people who ride trains

The people who work on trains

The people who wait for trains

The people who repair trains

Trains of the past

Trains of the future

Where trains are going

Inside railroad stations

Your brainstorming list should be quite long. If you get stuck, ask your friends or family “what’s the first thing to come to mind when I say trains”.

Once you have a good size list, start researching documentaries that have been made on the topics of trains. Include both photo and film documentaries. Learn as much as you can about trains. Next, go out and start photographing trains, keep the list with you and photograph trains and as many sub-topics from your list as you can.

Be patient, your final subject topic may not come to you immediately, it may take several outings with your camera. But I guarantee, eventually a subject will reveal itself to you that you just can’t help but photograph.

To share with you a little personal experience with this process… When I was in college taking a photo documentary class I chose my topic to be “The Historic Armories of Rhode Island”. When I chose the topic I had no doubts that I wanted to produce a body of work that would tell the story of the rich history, the similarities and differences in the 18 armories located in 11 cities/towns in the state. I spent countless hours the next few months researching, interviewing, visiting and photographing every armory in the state. When I was only about a month away from the project’s deadline, I visited my final building, the Cranston Street armory and immediately I was fascinated with it. I went back to my professor and told her how intrigued I had become with this single building. Her response to me, “Great, your subject has finally revealed itself to you.” I needed to visit 17 other buildings until I finally found the one that I truly connected with.

Don’t be surprised if you have a similar experience. Some documentarians know their subject before they even start shooting. But most, will need to do a little more soul-searching. It takes patience and prudence, just wait for it… eventually it will reveal itself to you.

Want to start your own documentary? Join us on Feb 21, 2016 for a free workshop and informational meeting on the Journey into the Art of Visual Storytelling. For more info contact

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