Photographing the Local: How to See the Spirit of a Place and Show It in a Photo Essay

Birds fly near a bridge overlooking Houghton MI in the morning
HOUGHTON, MI -DEC. 13, 2014: Birds fly out from beneath the bridge that connects Houghton, MI to Hancock, MI during sunrise Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014.

Every place has a history, character, and a unique spirit. Most of the time, embedded in our day to day, we don't think much about it. 
The spirit of a place, however, is one of the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding things to photograph. Photo essays about place are powerful: they help people see their own environment in a new light. They also help share a vision of the world with people far away. 
In this tutorial you'll learn how to research and build a photo story that transmits the spirit of a place through your images. As an example, we'll deconstruct a recent photo story I made about Houghton, a hockey-obsessed town in Michigan. We'll look at concrete steps and methods you can use to portray the history, character and spirit of a place in your photography, and what to do if you want to tell the story of a place that is not your own.
 Before you launch into taking pictures, take your time to do some research first. A photo essay is constructed of a series of related photographs, so we want visit and take pictures in a variety of situations that are representative of the place we will depict. Research helps you figure out what some of these situations might be.
The place you're interested in has gone through generations of change. The environmental, architectural, political, economic, and social changes in just ten years can sometimes be immense. Sometimes, however, change is slow, and small. Either way, you can be sure the local have something to say about it.
There is a history to every town, neighbourhood, or block and it's the people. These changes all help shape the current state of the area. Knowing what some of this past life was like for the town will help you recognize important places and situations that will better your photo essay's context. It will also give you something to talk about with people when you visit.
Look for what makes this place different or unique compared to others. Start with a broad idea and then narrow your focus in onto specific examples. What do people care about? What makes them passionate? What challenges do they face?
For Houghton the broad topic was hockey. Focusing in: a college hockey game, outdoor playing, and old buildings became the specifics we explored.

Bob Makolin and his wife Bertha sit on chairs surrounded by hockey memorabilia in the Calumet Colosseum
HOUGHTON, MI -DEC. 12, 2014: Bob Makolin, 85, and his wife Bertha Makolin, 85, sit beneath memorabilia for a portrait in the Calumet Colosseum in Calumet, MI Friday, Dec. 12, 2014. The Calumet Colosseum is the oldest hockey rink in existence and the two visit three days a week for exercise and to socialize. Photo by Lauren Justice

Do as much research as you can before you arrive on location. If you're working with a writer, chances are at least one of you has made contact with local resources who will be helpful to you. 
Some questions to ask are:
  • Who is actively involved with this topic and how do I get in touch with them?
  • Is there a "mayor," or local person who is the self-appointed (and sometimes formally recognized) ambassador for the block, neighbourhood, or area?
  • Is there anywhere in town that has visual links to the past, and am I able to gain access to this location?
  • How do I show the passion surrounding the topic, and when is the best time for me to arrive to show this?
  • What else is around, and how will I show the landscape so the viewer gets an idea of where we are in the country?
Each of these questions will lead you down paths of investigation and into relationships with people who maybe become characters in your story.

An old image from the early days of hockey hangs on the wall of the Calumet Colosseum in the Upper Peninsula
HOUGHTON, MI -DEC. 12, 2014: Memorabilia in the Calumet Colosseum, the oldest hockey rink in existence, Friday, Dec. 12, 2014, in Calumet, MI. Photo by Lauren Justice

 When you're going to a new place, allow yourself to be surprised. Doing research is important for you to feel grounded but it doesn't have to mean planning every detail. Allow yourself space to explore and go with your instincts. Do you see something off the main road that looks interesting and relevant? Go check it out. 
Leave some of your questions unanswered and ask the local bar goers. Insight can sometimes be best found just by talking to the strangers walking around you. More people are open to sharing their knowledge than not, and having an authentic curiosity will help others trust you and your questions. 
Wake up early and go to bed late. Especially when on a restricted time schedule, make sure you give yourself the opportunity to see how the area changes with the light and the activity. Go for a walk or a drive at both sunrise and sunset and watch how the sunlight ascends and retreats from the buildings. 

A boy enters Dee Stadium for hockey practice in front of a large sign indicating that he is in the birth place of professional hockey
HOUGHTON, MI -DEC. 13, 2014: Dee Stadium, the birthplace of professional hockey, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. Photo by Lauren Justice

Houghton, Michigan, is one of the Northernmost towns in an area called the Upper Peninsula, which is itself one of the Northernmost parts of the United States, excepting Alaska. The town started with a copper mining boom in the area.
Houghton has two of the oldest ice rinks in history. The first professional hockey team was formed there in 1902 and the love of the sport is deeply rooted in the makeup of the town. Old black-and-white archive images line the walls of local restaurants and bars, and finding a local outdoor rink to play on is as easy as asking the guy standing next to you. More than likely he plays hockey, his dad played hockey, and his sister probably plays too.
With Houghton, the writer I was working with and I arrived in time for a game between the college team, Michigan Tech, and the team from Minnesota-Duluth. The college team was in the middle of their first winning season in years, so the timing was relevant to the story. The writer had made contact with the school and through that we knew what time the team's practices and games were. This gave us a time block where we knew we would be working and could arrange to explore the town.

Michigan Tech fans cheer on their college hockey team during a game against Minnesota-Duluth
HOUGHTON, MI -DEC. 12, 2014: Michigan Tech fans cheer on their team during the game against Minnesota Duluth Friday, Dec. 12, 2014 at MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton, MI. Photo by Lauren Justice

 Once you've got a handle on the broad picture of place you're trying to depict, it's time to dig in, get comfortable, and get into the groove. Feel the vibe of your subject. Every place has it's own rhythms, sounds, feeling, and smells, even. To make pictures that really reflect what it feels like to be there, you want to do everything you can to get into the headspace of the place.
Some questions to ask yourself:
  • What advantages can I find to help portray the location? Is there a building I can get to the top of, is there a bridge to walk across, is there a hill I can drive up?
  • How many days will I have on location and how do I space the scenic shooting out to fit the schedule of my workdays?
  • What do people here do to relax? Where do they hang out and socialize?
  • Is there a culture that is particular to this place?

Bob Makolin 85 points to an old photograph of his brother at Calumet Colosseum
HOUGHTON, MI -DEC. 12, 2014: Bob Makolin, 85, finds his brother in old photographs that hang in the Calumet Colosseum in Calumet, MI Friday, Dec. 12, 2014. The Calumet Colosseum is the oldest hockey rink in existence and Makolin visits with his wife three days a week for exercise and to socialize. Photo by Lauren Justice

 No matter how much research you do, things on the ground will usually be different from how you imagined them.
In the case of Houghton, hockey is in the blood of young and old, so it was important to be able to show that. Even though the town has the first pro team in history, it was clear that hockey was still very much a part of the everyday today. In thinking about my own childhood, I remembered playing pickup games with friends on the street.
It didn't take long for a few locals we met at the bar across the street from my hotel to share the names and locations of three different rinks. The closest was only a few blocks away, and upon arrival, there were middle school, high school, and college kids there who had been already been playing for hours. The option of photographing kids the next day at about 3pm was also a possibility, but working at night under street lights gave a better sense of the amount of time people there spend playing. It helped set a mood that the 3'o'clock sun wouldn't have been able to do.

A sixteen-year-old boy hops over the side of a hockey rink to join play with his friends at an outdoor rink
HOUGHTON, MI -DEC. 11, 2014: Jason Chynoweth, 16, climbs over the side of the hockey rink as Travis Bessner, 17, keeps the puck away from Gage Hawthorne, 17, behind him at a hockey rink on Edwards Street in Houghton, MI Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. Photo by Lauren Justice

Talk to locals whenever you can: they'll be able to give you a more nuanced understanding of the issues that what you can glean alone. Journalists, activists, organizers, and officials can all be good sources.
There's no substitute for time, but if you only have a bit of it there are some shortcuts to getting into the spirit of a place. Even if you are not pressed for time, the suggestions below will help bring nuance and detail to your photo essay.
Is there a visitor's center? They'll tell you what's important to the people in the place you're exploring, or at least what they think you'd like to see. Many valuable resources can be found in the many brochures offered at these locations.
Two important finds for Houghton were the geology museum (which was beneficial because of the town's copper mining past) and a pamphlet with information about the town's digital archive.
 With the goal of documenting the connection between the past and the present, being able to see archive photos from the early days and having the possibility of placing them side-by-side in a gallery makes a powerful connection.
If there isn't a visitor's center, see if there is a historical society in town that can help you locate pieces of past life. Town archives and historical societies exist in a lot of places, and often the local archivist will be more than happy to help you. Usually what's available online is a tiny fraction of what you'll be able to find by talking to someone passionate.

Snow filled trees line the highway that leads from Houghton MI to Calumet MI
HOUGHTON, MI -DEC. 12, 2014: Winter landscape along the drive from Houghton, MI to Calumet, MI, Friday, Dec. 12, 2014. Photo by Lauren Justice

Feeling lost in a sea of too many exploration options? See if there is anyone local who has a passion and pride for their town or area that they want to share, and who can take you around to the sites they feel best portray their city. This person could be someone you talked to during your research phase or someone you met on the ground. 
Getting a guide could be a formal arrangement, like hiring someone, or it could be informal, like asking someone friendly to introduce you to people and let you follow them around for for an afternoon. Especially in places where an outsider with a camera might be perceived as threatening it's good to work with someone who can vouch for you and keep you out of trouble. 
 Once you've gathered your images, take time to edit them together into a photo essay that let the photos play off of each other in a way that takes the viewer through the city's people, history, and landscape. Sometimes it helps to give the viewer a sense of place first so that they can immediately imagine what the place looks like before diving in to the activities and people that occupy it. Try rearranging the images in different sequences and pay attention to the colors that flow from one image to the next, the feeling you get clicking forward in your sequence, and readjust when it seems like there is a disruption in the flow of the story. 
Also think about having a tight edit for work purposes and also a larger one to share with family and friends. Having 8-12 photos in a work photo essay usually works well: this way you're choosing your best images from the trip and can succinctly portray the sense of the town. Save the larger edit for personal use and for sharing stories with people you know.
Have you recently photographed the sense of a place and want to share? Feel free to leave comments about your experience and samples of your work! 
Capturing the spirit of a place so that you can portray it in photographs is equal parts planning and chance. The more planning you do, the better chances you'll have. Get yourself into the way a place feels, and work with the locals to reflect their experience, values, and environment.
  1. Advance research sets the stage
  2. Get boots on the ground to get a feel for things
  3. The get comfortable and work the angles
  4. Add more resources to build nuance and detail
  5. Then pull it all together
Having your pictures published is a great feeling, but can be a little mysterious if you're just getting started:


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