Picture perfect: 5 photographers reveal their secrets for a winning photo story

With the deadline fast approaching for the 2018 New East Photo Prize, we asked five shortlisted photographers from the inaugural competition to reveal their secrets to creating an outstanding photo story

19 June 2018
Interview Liza Premiyak

How do you tell a story with a camera, and what is involved? Do you need to invest in expensive equipment or spend time on post-production? Do you need to travel to far-flung horizons or can you turn your lens closer to home? These are some of the questions frequently asked by photographers — questions we regularly reflect on when publishing photo stories on The Calvert Journal, and which are at the heart of the New East Photo Prize.

Back in 2016, we launched the New East Photo Prize to celebrate contemporary photography from eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia. With the deadline fast approaching for the second edition, we asked five shortlisted photographers from the inaugural competition to reveal their secrets to creating an outstanding photo story.

For those interested in applying, you have until 30 June to submit your projects. More information can be found here. Best of luck!

Research the topic with devotion

Lana Stojićević

“The first step to making a successful photo project is to find an interesting topic, a fact or story that is not too known but is something you personally care about. Afterwards, you have to figure out how the aesthetics can complement the concept. Research the topic with devotion and try to understand the subject matter and the medium of photography as deeply as possible. Make sure there is room to confuse and intrigue the viewer. I think one of the keys to a great photo story lies in creating visuals that seem strange yet familiar and universal.”

Croatian artist Lana Stojićević’s works encompass photography, video, sculpture, installation and embroidery, and are recognisable for their wit and curiosity. Her series Black Hill centres around an industrial wasteland in the Ravni Kotari region of Croatia which she reimagines as a post-industrial dystopia.

See more photos from
Black Hill by Lana Stojićević.

Each image must stand on its own

Elena Subach

“I don’t think there is a recipe for a successful photo story. I can only share the way I look at stories by other photographers, the things I value and choose to apply to my own work. The first thing is that each and every photo is important. It should be able to stand on its own as an art work. You should be able to ask: would I hang it on my wall if it was the only art work in my house? If the answer is yes, then I will include it in my photo story. Secondly, it’s important that your photos are not just references for a text. Of course, the concept is really important but the photos should create a strong impression on their own, incite curiosity, encourage questions, not leave you indifferent.”

Elena Subach was born in Chervonohrad, western Ukraine, and currently lives and works in Lviv. As part of the inaugral New East Photo Prize in 2016, she was awarded the £1000 grant by Bird in Flight to complete The Sacrifice, a series inspired by her experience growing up in provincial Ukraine.

See more photos from
The Sacrifice by Elena Subach.

Take it slow

Michał Siarek

“The best advice I ever got was to take it slow and to grow older with a particular, meaningful story that captivates you. That takes time, but eventually you will find yourself involved, becoming an expert or an advocate. Only then will you define your principles as an artist/photographer/storyteller. It’s also useful to imagine how you would develop your project if there were no limits whatsoever, and then try to get as close to that as possible. Go full throttle and don’t rely on cheap compromises in the concept. I remember finding a scan from photographer Tony Ray Jones’s notebook, entitled: “Approach”. I advise any photographer to look it up online. Even if it doesn’t apply directly to your practice, perhaps his words will help keep your mind afloat and focused. There is not much time left to daydream of “success” if you follow any one of these. For me there’s a crucial combination of authenticity, perseverance and dedication that makes your work stand out.”

Polish photographer Michal Siarek won Calvert 22 Foundation’s inaugural New East Photo Prize back in 2016 with his project Alexander, which unravels the myths surrounding Macedonia’s search for a new national identity, including the controversial statue of Alexander the Great erected in the centre of Skopje. The project has since been published as a photo book, available here.

See more photos from Alexander by Michał Siarek.

Be ready to ask questions

Sasha Rudensky

“What makes a successful photo story is perhaps the wrong question to ask in the first place because it implies that there is a quantifiable set of ingredients or conditions that will yield the desired outcome, a kind of known. For me making photographs has always been about setting out a series of questions to which I don’t already know the answers, and not about illustrating a concept. On the other hand, I can think of many artists whom I greatly admire that do just that. It is very personal.”

Since moving to the US, Russian-born photographer Sasha Rudensky has been documenting others who have lived through transition. The portraits that make up Tinsel and Blue are the result of six years photographing a post-Soviet generation cut off from the past and still trying to find themselves in an indeterminate world.

See more photos from
Tinsel and Blue by Sasha Rudensky.

Be true to yourself

Katrina Kepule

“For me a photo story is a sequence of photos mirroring the photographer’s subjective reality. I generally do not work with linear narratives or very predefined concepts and I can only admire and try to analyse how they are made. I can appreciate fully formed ideas ideas, but to be guided into the story the first impulse for me still needs to be visual. I usually arrive at a story after I have spent a while photographing and returning with my camera to a certain space, situation or mood. It is important, of course, that all the images in a photo story speak to each other in a meaningful way, that they do not weaken or repeat each other, but support the coherence or add something important to the whole body of work. But, apart from wisely combined formal elements, it still seems to me quite an alchemy. As there can be so many ways to edit one story, the most important thing for the storyteller may be guided by his/her own true motivations. It might be helpful to understand your story and then find the tools for telling it. But if you cannot resist shooting, just do it until you understand.”

Latvian photographer Katrina Kepule describes her method as “subjective documentary”. Her series Sit Silently, which takes the temperature of contemporary Latvia, took her to the edgelands of Riga, where European and Soviet influences coexist.

See more photos from
Sit Silently by Katrina Kepule.

Interviews: Liza Premiyak
Top image: Katrina Kepule, from the series Sit Silently