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The importance of case studies in photography

The importance of case studies to support photography should not be underestimated in a world dominated by social media, ‘going viral’, and confirmation bias. For photojournalists, it is an important part of a photoshoot to provide informative and authentic context with each photograph. This can be in the form of captions, and case studies made up of first-hand accounts. It is what we expect from every photojournalist we work with here at Arete and it is a standard of integrity also expected by many global organisations and news agencies.

In this blog, we explore the importance of case studies to support photography, focussing on how providing case studies alongside photographs can be useful, not only to photographers but also to clients and journalists who may use the context of a photograph to illustrate a story.

The importance of case studies for the photographer

Case studies bolster the quality of a photographer’s work. When photographs are presented to a client or a news agency, photos should be accompanied by background information and context to help the viewer better understand what they are looking at. An image can speak a thousand words; however, unless context is provided with each image, this can lead to misinterpretation. The standard caption information required by news outlets is recognised as the Who, What, Where, When and Why.

This is where gathering case studies alongside photographs can help. Context obtained from case studies ensures that the situation is being reported on correctly. A good example of this can be found in a recent story from the BBC. An image of a young girl, named Divya, clutching a bowl and peeking into a packed classroom in a government school was published in a Telugu newspaper in India with a caption that translates as “hungry gaze”. This image (below) was picked up by a children’s rights activist who shared it on Facebook, lamenting that yet another child was being denied the right to food and education. The post quickly went viral and had such an impact that the school enrolled Divya the following day.


In fact, Divya’s parents both work hard and send all their children to school, and they were waiting for her to turn six before they enrolled her in the government school. Many of the local children hang around the school, whether they are old enough to be enrolled or not, and are given free food at lunchtime.

The ambiguous caption that accompanied the original photo in the Telugu newspaper was the cause of false reporting on social media and as a result, a witch hunt that unfairly targetted the local school and her parents. The length and depth of a case study are for the photographer to decide, although when gathering case study information to accompany photographs, it is important to prioritise quality over quantity. A good photojournalist should be open and reactive to what the interviewees are saying and talk to each person for as long a time as necessary to gather the full story. A first-hand account is always more powerful than an objective one and case studies should be presented in an interviewees own words where possible.

The importance of case studies for the client

From the perspective of the client or a news agency, photographs with accompanying case studies, or interviews, are immediately more valuable and credible than those without.

Clients are likely to use photographs to create content, and by using the story that accompanies the photograph, what they produce will be far more engaging; inspiring interest and captivating the viewer.

Content aims to create a connection between the viewer and the subject, and elicit a reaction. Photographs are already excellent at doing this. They become even stronger with the addition of a written story or direct quotes from the person or people in the photograph. Good case studies provide extra layers of detail that expand the story line.

The information and direct quotes garnered from case studies can also be especially useful to a client when the anonymity of the subject/s of the photographs must be protected. A good example of this is a story we were engaged to gather by UNICEF on ex-child soldiers in South Sudan. When presenting this story to the world, the client couldn’t rely on the connection created by the faces and expressions of the children in the photos as it was important they remained anonymous. By making use of direct quotes from the ex-child soldiers, overlaid on carefully taken images, it was possible to create resonant and captivating content that explored each child’s story; allowing the viewer to gain an understanding and form a connection with their situation.

Case studies are very important to both the photographer and the client. The context derived from case studies can help the photojournalist ensure they are reporting on a situation authentically, as well as giving the people in the photographs a voice to tell their own story. From the client’s point of view case studies go a long way to helping create more varied content and, ultimately, will provide them with a tool to tell more powerful stories.



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Arete is the expert storytelling and training agency for NGOs, UN bodies and foundations.