The Newly Released Photo Essay

Is a digital story just a new and improved photo essay?

Yes and No!

While creating my digital personal narrative, I was struck by how similar it was to creating a photo essay. I’m a person who prefers to communicate in text rather than images. Give me a topic and I’ll write about it. Ask me to take photographs that represent a topic or help an audience define the topic – and the process just became much more difficult.

So I asked myself, “Are digital stories just new fangled photo essays?” There are plenty of similarities, but to me, there is one large difference beyond media platforms.

Yes: A digital story can be thought of as a photo essay. It’s using images and text to tell a story. For years newspaper and magazine publishers have known that the combination of images and text appeals to a boarder audience. This powerful combination could tell the story better than words alone. Photo essays use literal or direct images to tell the story. The same is true in digital stories. Direct images “are useful in conveying the necessary details of your story or helping to set the scene for your audience,” as stated in Lambert / Hesseler’s The Seven Steps Of Digital Storytelling (pg. 10).

Yes: Digital stories and photo essays use the same steps in the writing process. The first step is to brainstorm or find the idea for the story. The next step is to ask yourself what do you want to accomplish with the story? What do you want the audience to do or feel? Then you create the story by taking, finding, or creating images and writing the supportive text, The first draft is never the final draft, so you revise, revise, and then edit again. Finally, you are ready for publication. Whether it’s a photo essay or a digital story, you then, sit back and wait for the audience response.

No!: Photo-essays do not include your voice. It’s true the best writers believe that they can show the audience the voice of the character just by using the right words and images. If it’s written well enough, if the picture is sharp and detailed enough, they hope that the audience will hear the voice of the character exactly as the author does in their head while writing. That’s the difference. They have to hope! Hope that they audience will hear the voice. Contrastingly, digital stories can use sound!

What can digitally storytelling do?




Lambert / Hessler, Seven Steps To Digital Storytelling

The Cranberries (1992). Dreams [Recorded by The Crandberries]. On Stars: The Best of 1992 – 2002. London, United Kingdom: Island.



  1. Kendell Newman

    I played the track at the end of this thinking I’d have a little soundtrack while I started to respond — and then your voice popped into the middle of the song! What a fun surprise.

    I read your conclusion to be that a digital story is a photo essay with sound. I wonder how that finding sits with you, as someone dedicating a whole semester to this study. Is it disappointing? Relieving to be able to map it onto something familiar? Have you come across any stories that don’t quite fit this definition, and what do you do with those?

    I also see your writing focused on what the /creator/ of a digital story can do — not what the story itself can do once circulated. I wonder if you have thoughts on that second angle.

  2. Rebecca

    I’m not disappointed that a digital story can be thought of as a photo essay with sound. I think it’s wonderful! It is an expansion of the storytelling craft. I like how it both harkens back to the oral tradition of storytelling (how many times did I record my voice to make sure the story was told with the right intonations? – many) and updates the craft with endless digital media options.

    The other question about have I come across any stories that don’t quite fit this definition – the answer is yes. This class has expanded my idea and interpretation of story so if you consider, gaming, meme’s, infographics, and other digital media as storytelling which I now do, then yes digital stories can be much more than just photo essays with sound.

    I agree that my writing focused on what the creator of a digital story can do and my reflection of the process as feeling very much like how I might create a photo essay with the addition of sound.

    What can a digital story do? It can preserve history, it can persuade and influence public perception, it can sell, it can entertain, it can educate. Can it’s power of education and persuasion be used as treatment for mental health issues? I don’t know the answer to that, but I hope someone is studying it. I do know that digital stories can be powerful.

Comments are closed.