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Paul Taggart, whose work has appeared in publications such the New York Times and National Geographic, has photographed dozens of photo essays—from stories of civil unrest in faraway lands to a kid's first camping trip. Here, he discusses the key concepts behind great photojournalism: the types of photos that make up a photo essay, the research and planning that goes into shooting one, and the art of sequencing the final shots in a way that tells the story. He also talks about the prospects for storytellers in the Internet age, and shows examples of photo essays that he has shot for major magazines and for his own personal projects.
First and foremost, I'm a storyteller. And sometimes I work as a photojournalist, and other times, I just work as a photographer. When I'm working as a photojournalist, there are some rules and guidelines that I have to abide by when working for a newspaper or a news magazine. and when I'm working as a photographer, I'm just out there making images, and I'm always doing it in an honest way. But the rules are separate from when I'm working for a newspaper. Nowadays I'm working more as an editorial photographer and filmmaker, and so those rules are a little bit more laxed.
When I'm working for a newspaper, there's some very definite things that I have to do. I have to get names right, I have to get locations right, I can't move anything inside my frame, I can't ask people to do anything inside my frame. it's it's a box that you have to work in creatively. And I actually enjoy that a lot. And I respect the industry immensely. It's how I came up as a photographer. It's where I hope to end up when I'm an old man dying, I still want to be shooting newspaper images. But when you get outside that box and you're working just for editorial publications or working as a filmmaker, or any other industry sort of outside of the news industry telling stories, it's a very freeing way to express yourself.
So within the genre of photo stories, there's a very specific kind of story that, in my career so far, I've tried to tell. it's usually been something related to a conflict or a social cause and usually a region. For five, six years I was very interested in what was happening in the Middle East and North Africa. when I was coming out of art school, it was 2001, 2002 and 911 had just happened. And, that greatly impacted my career.
automatically, every single front page of every single newspaper in America had something to do with the Middle East. it was within two years that I made my first trip to the Middle East and ended up in Iraq working there, and then later on, was based out of Beirut. so most of my stories in my career, my photo essays have been rooted in those conflicts or in the history of those countries in the, 2002 to about 2009. and what I do when I'm trying to tell a story, is I'll, I'll find an actual event that's happening, so it might be an earthquake's just happened or a tsunami's just happened, or there's a war going on or there's a famine going on. or, for a while I was interested in working with the mountain gorillas in Congo and there were some, some conflict elements were involved with that, that affected the gorillas.
but what I do is I look at the bigger picture, and I'll go to that place, let's say it's a war, I will go to that war zone. but then, that's not the story. The story is much smaller, and so you go from the, this bigger place of a war, and then you find that one person, and you want to spend a week with that one person and tell their story and do a photo essay on them. Or one small topic. I was living in Beirut in 2006 when Israel invaded and started bombing South Lebanon, and I covered the whole 34 day war.
But one of the photo essays that I loved the most is during the war and then shortly after the war. I was commissioned by the United Nations to do a set of pictures on cluster bombs, which is a small munition that's outlawed internationally but Israel used in the south of Lebanon. And so, I was tasked to go down the south and photograph child victims of this, and this is a story that I, you know, was tragic and heart-wrenching, but it's also a story of empowerment of these children that had survived.
And actually go from village to village sort of telling their friends you know, don't pick up these little bomblets that you might find in a field because you're going to lose your leg too. so again, it's about, you know, I'll be tasked to go someplace and there's a bigger story, like a war, and I'll do lots of different assignments for different publications there. But it's the focusing in, and focusing in and focusing in more on the more local level that you get the really meaningful stories that I love.
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