Photography for Study Abroad: Photography as Storytelling


One of the challenges for faculty members and students on study abroad research and service learning trips is capturing their research in meaningful, engaging ways that can be captured and showcased for others at the College, and beyond, to benefit from. One current W&M solution to this problem is to create a course website using WordPress and then having students post their research on the website. While publishing research papers is a good first step, these text-based essays don’t take advantage of the great opportunity that a study abroad research trip affords for great photographic supplemental materials. Indeed, a good photo journal to go along with a student’s research can not only keep the reader of the website engaged, but it can help tell the story in fundamental ways that mere text alone can’t do.

The Problem

Even though students always bring cameras along on their research trips abroad, they are almost never thinking of how to incorporate their photographs into their research papers, and even when they are thinking along those lines, they have very little training in using their equipment or in how to take photos that will actually illustrate their research in engaging ways.

To address this problem, I have been visiting various classes here at the College to give students some background on photography, but the problem is, where do you start?

Photography as Storytelling

The most important consideration when taking photos within the context of a research assignment is to understand why you are taking the photo you’re taking. Does it tell any part of your story in a visually compelling way? Imagine in your mind’s eye the perfect photo or series of photos to illustrate your point. Think about what your research paper is saying and think about the images you want to go along with that story. However, don’t be too rigid.

Sometimes, the photos you take, the images you observe, will influence and change what you originally thought you knew when you were working on your research paper. Are you writing about an impoverished inner city and all of a sudden you go to take pictures and you notice that there’s a revitalization project under way? Take those pictures! Work that angle into your original essay, don’t just take the photos that play into your original preconceptions. Remember, taking photos is research too.

Here’s a video tutorial I’ve been giving recently to help you start to think more carefully about photography as storytelling:

With this very basic idea of photography as storytelling, you can go a long way toward improving your research experience in your study abroad program. There are a few other very basic points to think about that I will briefly touch upon here and then return to in later segments:


You have to take students where you find them. Some will be bringing digital SLRs, some will be bringing iPhones. The range of equipment is incredible. So my first tip about equipment is this: understand your own equipment and practice with it. Understand what conditions you need to take good photographs and realize the limitations and strengths of your own photographic abilities and the abilities of your equipment before you ever get out into the field.


Just as students will be bringing various types of equipment with them, they will also be bringing various skill levels. The important thing is that students understand what makes for a good photograph, and I will be writing my next blog post on training your eye to take a good photograph. There are some basic rules, just as there are basic rules to writing a good essay, and you first need to become familiar with those rules and be able to take photographs following those rules before you can depart from the rules and produce really interesting work.

About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College