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How to Edit a Documentary Photo Story

Editing can be the hardest and most frustrating process involved in working on a photo project, but ultimately it’s the very moment the story, the atmosphere and the message you intend to convey take shape. I’ll take Dias Eternos, a long-term project shot by photographer Ana Maria Arevalo in Venezuelan prisons and featured by The New York Times and the Pulitzer Center among others, as an example to share a few advice.

1. Understand the basic principles of editing and sequencing

According to the nature of your project and the destination you have in mind for it, you’ll make different choices during the editing process.

To get an idea, a good exercise is to look at the different ways photos are chosen and sequenced for different purposes. Examine the 10-picture-edits of the photojournalism stories awarded at the World Press Photo or POYi, the editing of an exhibition at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City or Le Bal in Paris, or a photo book published by Mack, Aperture, or Editions Bessard.

From the exhibition Stephen Shore at MoMA, New York, 2017 © Jonas Cuénin

The same project can potentially be featured in all of these three contexts, but at least some of the photos chosen, the width of the edit and the sequencing will change. This is because of the way the viewer will experience the images, and because of the distinct primary purposes of photojournalism, an exhibition and a photo book. 

Keeping that in mind, there are some fundamental advices that can help you make choices, looking back to the first intent of any photo project: tell a story. 

To show how universal some of these principles can be let’s look at the process of one of the most influential film editors of modern cinema, Walter Murch. According to Murch, editor of Apocalypse Now, The Conversation and The English Patient among other films, there are six main rules in editing, organized by order of priority. The first three rules are:

1 – Emotion: “how does the cut between one shot (or photograph in this case) and the following make you feel? Is this feeling what you want at this point of the storytelling?”

2 – Story: “do you understand what’s going on?” 

3 – Rhythm: “is the cut (or the shot) coming in at the right point, in the musical sense, or is it like a drummer that comes in too late or too soon?”

Appearing in 2015 at a conference for Adobe, Murch addressed the public: “How do you want the audience to feel? (…) What they finally remember is not the editing, not the camerawork, not the performances, not even the story—it’s how they felt.” 

Editing a fiction film or a photo project are two wildly different tasks, but Murch’s words resonate nonetheless. We work on projects to draw people to understand a subject deeper and want to know more about it, but even when the topic is well researched and the photos technically competent, a story that doesn’t move feelings, any feelings, is a story that won’t make an impact and won’t last in the viewer’s memory.

Learning how to edit helps you choose the photos that are more impactful and able to convey information, and sequence them to shape a meaningful narrative that keeps a good rhythm from the beginning to the end.   

2. Read your Project Statement 

A project statement is a short text of a paragraph or half a page where you describe what your project is about.

The statement is an extremely important element, as it becomes your way to present your project to editors when you send them an email to pitch a story, submit your work to festivals or share it for feedback. 

As an example, this is Ana Maria Arevalo’s statement:

Dias Eternos

In Venezuela, the criminal Justice System does not work equally for everybody. It takes away the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Thousands of women, most of them awaiting trial and presumed innocent, are expected to be held for 45 days, but Venezuela’s crisis has turned this norm into a memory. 

Detention centers are dark, hot, overcrowded and claustrophobic. Prisoners receive little food and water, and no medical assistance. Abandoned by their families, some of them need help from the outside to survive. There is no separation between men and women, nor between convicted criminals and people awaiting trial. Pregnant women often present infections and loss of placenta, a life threatening complication.

Some have been victims of abuse in their family or coerced by men to commit a crime, and the reason of their detentions are usually related to drugs, robbery or of political nature.

It is hard to imagine how living under these conditions could result in rehabilitation. “When we get out of here, if we do, we will be worse people than we were before”, said Yorkelis (21), who was arrested two years earlier. She calls Chinatown, a one-cell-only prison overcrowded with 60 women, her home.

If you haven’t written your statement yet, do in now.

If you did, read the title and the text again. Highlight the essential keywords a reader needs to understand your story.

Do the title, text and photos contribute telling the same story? Is there any important element missing from the text, or from the photos? 

According to the answer you give yourself, you might need to correct the text, go back and shoot the photos you’re missing, or both. This can happen however many times for the project to be complete. 

Assuming your text and photos are right on, you can go on with the process.

Photographs printed postcard-size and laid down on a desk © Gaia Squarci

3. Organize and edit down your images

Print a wide edit of your favorite 100 photos postcard-size, lay them down on a magnetic board on the wall, on your desk or on the floor and try to imagine you’re looking at them for the first time. Seeing all of the photos printed together will already give you a new feeling about the story and its mood.  

You’ll need to narrow down your work to, say, 10 or 20 photos, so that the project can quickly speak to a public that doesn’t know you, hasn’t been where you’ve been, hasn’t met the people you met and doesn’t know how hard it was to get any of the shots.

This is a hard task that requires you to separate yourself emotionally from the images, linked to your memories and your efforts, and start seeing them merely as images. You’ll find yourself making decisions that continuously compromise between content, namely “what do the photos show”, and visual style, “how they show it”.

Let’s take into consideration Ana Maria Arevalo’s photos from Dias Eternos. As a general analysis we can say that Ana Maria is using natural light, she freezes the movement as opposed to blurring it and she uses the pastel color pattern of the prisons, one that seems to speak for the femininity and the young age of most of the inmates, as a cohesive element throughout the story. Any single photo that presents itself as a complete outlier from these characteristics can be easily removed from the edit. 

I received 55 images from Ana Maria and narrowed the edit down to 13, as if I had to make a selection for a publication on the web or a short portfolio. 

What can help you in this process is dividing the images into groups:

Portraits of different characters or the same character, details, establishing shots taken with a wide-angle lens giving the viewer a sense of place, should all be separated in different categories, which can change depending on the project. In Ana Maria’s case, these are the main categories I used:

Wide shots, showing women in overcrowded cells

Wides shots, from the series Dias Eternos © Ana Maria Arevalo


Portraits, from the series Dias Eternos © Ana Maria Arevalo


Details, from the series Dias Eternos © Ana Maria Arevalo

Take into examination every group and you’ll notice some repetition. Choose the better alternatives, the photos that carry more feeling as opposed to the ones more technically precise but less impactful, and choose the images you absolutely love.

Get down to 30/40images. At this point you’ll start knowing your material better. You’ll get a feeling for the stronger components of the story and you’ll be more conscious of the visual style you spontaneously – or consciously – applied to it. 

Take time to do some visual analysis. 

Are your photos quiet and meditative or do they have a strong dynamic and movement?  

Is there an alternation between bright images and others shot in the dark? 

Did you alternate flash and natural light or did you favor one of the two? 

Did you tend to freeze or blur movement? 

Does the color pattern and its consistency play a part in the narrative? If you’re shooting a project in black and white, look at the light and shade. Is your black and white contrasty and dramatic or soft and flatter? What is the mood it conveys? 

Asking yourself these questions will help you gain awareness of your story, your style, and the feeling it carries. Some photos might be good standalone shots but they won’t fit with the others because of strong differences in feeling and visual style. You’ll need to let them go, to give the edit coherence. A story won’t come out of single shots.   

4. Choose a beginning and an ending shot

Opening shot: 

From the series Dias Eternos © Ana Maria Arevalo

Among the photos you have, chose an opening and an ending image. 

The opener needs to be a strong, possibly surprising photo that draws the viewer’s interest to see more. Wide-angle “establishing” shots identifying the location and/or the subject of the story are usually preferred to tighter frames. Ideally the first shot needs to include any fundamental elements that can suggest – but not give away to – the viewers what they’re going to look at.  

I chose this shot because it immediately caught my attention, being very different from most photos we’re used to see of inmates in detention centers, but still able to give us elements to understand that the location of the photo is an overcrowded place, where people live in distress. The traditional approach of documentary photography would opt for a wider, more descriptive shot, but I personally preferred one that could drive the viewer’s interest to the psychology of the characters and their personal experiences. We’re curious to discover who the meditative girl with beautiful hair is, her age, her relationship to the other people in the room and why is she there. We wonder why she’s not showing us her face.  

The structure of the photo is central and very well balanced, and the main character is framed by the light. The color pattern anticipates and represents the one we can see in the rest of the work. 

Ending shot: 

From the series Dias Eternos © Ana Maria Arevalo

The ending shot is usually an image that gives a sense of closure, while leaving the viewer with the desire to know more. Think of the ending shot of a movie. It tends to be quiet, to suggest departure, it often leaves us with an open question. 

I chose this photo because while in most shots we find ourselves inside the cells with the inmates, here we’re separated from the subject by the bars. This physical barrier puts a distance between us and the subject, reminding us that while we can now leave, the transgender woman in the photo will probably stay for a long time stuck where she is, constantly exposed to danger because she’s detained in a cell with male detainees. The graceful position of the hand and her earring are in contrast with her expression of deception, boredom and resignation. The photo leaves us thinking about the title of the project, Dias Eternos, and wondering about her future. 

5. Make a tight edit and sequence it

After choosing the beginning and the end of the story, which are, of course never set in stone, start giving an order to the rest of the photos you want to use. 

Few stories require you to proceed in a loosely chronological order, but for most of them I’d suggest to keep the time and place where the single photos have been shot only in the back of your head.

Give yourself the chance to play freely with the images and create juxtapositions. You can pair photos looking for harmony or contrast, notice if the glance or position of the character of a photo draws your attention to the following shot. You can play with color and shape to create unexpected associations and nuances of meaning, because when you pair two photos together they become a third element which didn’t exist before.

Once you did this, keep in mind the associations you liked but be prepared to forget any of these if they don’t help you telling the story. 

Progressing from the beginning to the end, give an order to the images to form a narrative. It doesn’t need to be literal, but each of the photos should add information to the one before, help us to know more about place or a character, draw us deeper into an atmosphere or to understand better a phenomenon, its causes and consequences.

Remembering Murch’s rules, the photo sequence, like any piece of writing, music or video, needs to have its own rhythm. In this sequence of Ana Maria’s work I tried to alternate busy frames full of information to others that constitute moments of pause, feeling and reflection.

Final sequence of Ana Maria Arevalo’s project, edited by Gaia Squarci

You can see that the physical distance of the camera from the subject varies throughout the edit, and that I used a mixture of more “descriptive” photos like number 6, which shows the sanitary conditions in the prisons, and others like number 9 which can more intuitively suggest that strong bonds are formed among inmates. 

I felt it was appropriate to use a photo (3) including the guards and at lest one image (7) indicating the presence of men mixed with women within the prisons, since it happens that babies are conceived while the women are already detained. 

Number 8 is the only vertical I chose, but it was important for me to include as it’s the only one that talks about self-harm. There’s an intuitive hand>hand association we can make with picture 10, which shows women praying. Instead of putting 8 and 10 one after the other I preferred to add one photo in between so the passage isn’t too obvious.    

I tried to alternate daylight and tungsten light, photos shot inside and outside the cells. 

Don’t be afraid to switch the position of two photos, try out anything that comes to mind. You never know if an idea works until you try it out, and a good photo edit comes out of a delicate balance between instinct and reason, intuitive associations and storytelling.

6. Ask for feedback

When you think you found a solid sequence of 10 to 20 photos, let it hang on your wall for some time. You’ll get bored to see some of the photos, and while you’ll stay behind some of the choices you made you’ll change your mind on others. 

Make any changes you need, then start showing the edit to as many people you can, to get  feedback. You definitely should try to get some advice from people in the photography industry (bring your sequence and a wider edit as well, in case they want to see it), but photography speaks to everyone in different ways and anyone, your mom, your child, your best friend who works in a restaurant, can potentially tell you something revealing about your photos.

Talks between photographers and editors, Mana Contemporary, New Jersey © Gaia Squarci

We use photography as a tool to communicate to a larger public, not only to experts in our own field. The feedbacks will be wildly different, often contradictory, but some of them will repeat themselves. If three people with different backgrounds tell you the same thing, chances are that they’re right. 

Write down all of the feedbacks you receive, listen all of the advices that come your way, and then trust your guts and intellectual honesty to follow only the ones that feel right to you.

Gaia Squarci

Gaia Squarci is a photographer and videographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at ICP (International Center of Photography). She’s a contributor of Prospekt agency and Reuters. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Vogue, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, among others. Her work has been exhibited in the United States, Italy, France, Switzerland or in the UK.

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