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June 23rd, 2009

Long photo essays: Research, plan, and stay flexible

Posted by Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher, a photojournalist living and working in China, won a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in February for his work on the country’s desertification. After a whirlwind trip to complete his coverage, Sean returned with several photo stories, posted on the Pulitzer Center’s blog. We asked him to explain how he tackled such a long, complicated project. He talks here about the importance of research and planning. Don’t miss his first post about how to find good stories.
©Sean Gallagher, courtesy Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Tourists enjoy themselves on the 100-meter-high sand dunes. ©Sean Gallagher. Courtesy Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

Before I was awarded the grant from Pulitzer, I had to have it clear in my mind what I wanted to achieve with this project and how exactly I wanted to achieve it. I had already been working on the subject of desertification on-and-off for over a year, so I already had a good idea of most of the main issues.

In drawing up my application for the grant, I had to lay out a detailed plan of where I would go during my proposed trip, which forced me to clearly identify the key issues that were important to the big topic. Beginning this planning process was no easy task. China is a vast place and desertification is an equally vast issue. I knew that I was going to have to lay a careful plan if I was to achieve everything I wanted to.

The first thing I did was revisit all the old articles that I had bookmarked online over the months. I have a habit of bookmarking interesting articles in case I ever need them or decide to follow-up on them for potential photo-essays. This helped me quickly review what I was already familiar with. Through my research, I then started to make a list of separate issues that were all linked to desertification. These included things like environmental refugees, degraded grasslands, abandoned cities, threatened water, tourism, science vs. the desert, etc.

The next step was to head to my office wall, where a large, detailed map of China became my logistical planning station. With articles in hand, I started to circle locations that seemed to represent each issue I wanted to cover. Quite soon, I had circles and scribbles all over the map. My proposal was going to be for a 6-week trip, so I knew I didn’t want to attempt too much — but I also needed to cover all the key issues. I decided to tackle six issues, one per week, giving me seven days with each location and issue.

I didn’t want to attempt too much — but I also needed to cover all the key issues.

One of my main goals for this project was to show that desertification was affecting vast swathes of China. I therefore planned to travel from “coast to coast,” 4,000 km from one side of China to the other, and picked locations that would move me progressively across the country. Most of my locations fell along China’s northern rail network, so I decided to ride these trains as a way to link my locations and give me a better feel for the land I was traveling through.

Once I had decided on locations and how I was going to travel to them, I needed to identify how I would cover the issue in each location. Again, this came down to research. I trawled the web looking for information on each location to give me a an idea of what images I could potentially make there. For some of the locations, however, the information was limited, so I knew it was going to take some investigative work once there to tell the story. Also, you can never plan completely what pictures you will take because it is often the serendipitous ones that eventually turn out to be the best.

Even after all my research was done and the plan was laid out, though, I just knew that everything would not transpire as smoothly as I hoped. “This is China — things are never straightforward,” I though to myself. I had prepared as best I could, but I also had to be ready to adapt quickly to the changes I would inevitably have to make to my plan.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: How do you plan for big photo essays like this? Do you have favorite stories by other photographers who tackled a big topic by linking smaller stories?

One Comment

  1. June 24th, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Photo News Today » Blog Archive » Photo News Today

    […] and Read More: livebooks.comSHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “Long photo essays: Research, plan, and stay flexible – Sean Gallagher […]


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