During the fall of last year I was lucky enough to go to Cape May, NJ to photograph the Monarch Butterfly migration. It was one of the coolest events I covered in 2012. It is amazing to think these butterflies will travel all the way to Mexico and back again. I went with fellow photographer and friend Dan Simon, who is also a contributing author for this blog. During our trips we were able to produce some exciting images.
One of my goals with this series of shoots over the next couple of years is to produce a photo essay. I knew I did not have the time to spend there for a few weeks to be able to do the essay in one season. I would like to share the journey of making this photo essay with all of you as it unfolds. I am not sure what the final product will be yet but I have several ideas I am going to play with as far as presentation.
With that in mind I started to look at what the dynamic of this stop in the migration is and how I was going to tell the story. The Monarchs use Cape May because of its geographical location. When coming north they cross the bay of Delaware to the Southern point on New Jersey, the town of Cape May. Once they arrive in the spring they will eat and regain their strength after the long flight across the water. When they head south for the winter they will eat, storing up energy until they get a favorable wind to cross the bay again.
This is only one stop on their journey. The Monarch’s are a temporary part of the local environment in large numbers. In order to tell the story I have to show the environment where it takes place. To do any photo essay with just pictures of the main character, in this case the Monarch butterfly, is not to tell the whole story. The landscape, plants and animals found there are all part of the story.
The dragonfly above and the bee below are two of the insects found along with the butterflies. Look at what other creatures are around while you are shooting. What is the role your main subject plays in the ecosystem? How does it interact with the insects around it? Try to understand your subject in context and share that context with your viewer.
What does your main character eat? It is one of the reasons why you find them where you do. Food sources are one of the main ways your subject interacts with its environment. Where does the subject sleep or nest? Try to think of your subject as if it were going through its day. What is its schedule like? You can try writing it out like you would your own daily activities.
With the main subject of your essay you want to get a lot of different variations of its activities. In this case I am look for it with a variety of plants, in flight, resting and any other contexts I can find. You want to have a lot of options when you go to pick the images for the final product. As you go about the process of gathering images to tell the story you will begin to refine your message.
After I complete my first couple of shoots for a photo essay I like to sit down and start to storyboard the project. Up until this point I have had a general plan about the direction of the essay but now I really start to refine the message. A storyboard is used in movie making and is essentially a comic of the entire movie. For my purposes it is where I go through and sketch out how I want the story to look. I look at how many images I want to include and what those images will be like. Once I have decided on the direction of the story then those choices will become the basis for my shot list going forward as I continue with production. The choices you make here are not set in stone but they provide a map to guide your work. This is the place where I am now in this project, as I get ready to finalize my production ideas for this coming year.
A photo essay is the telling of a story in pictures, but you can also use some writing as well. As with all stories you want to have characters, setting and a plot. I can’t say it enough about photo essays– they are story telling. This is what we do as photographers. We tell stories or parts of stories in conjunction with the works of others. A good story will cause people to think. Have an idea of what you want them to be wondering about as you craft your message.
In this case the story I am telling is only a part of the larger story about the migration. When I am crafting the message for this project I have to keep this in mind. It is a look at a couple of weeks during what is a yearly cycle for the Monarchs. When you are working on a photo essay you need to understand its place the in larger story about the subject.
As someone who does a lot of work with macro and close-up photography I am looking forward to the challenge of creating a photo essay in this style for the first time. This is going to create some very big challenges in terms of showing the context of the landscape. I am planning on using some new techniques I have been working on with macro and close-up panoramas to convey a larger sense of the subject’s surroundings. My goal is to maintain this style of photography with all of the shots in this project.