A lot of people say a picture story has a beginning, middle and end whereas a photo essay doesn’t necessarily. Not exactly. I’d say a picture story tends to be about one place or person or situation whereas an essay tends to be about one type or aspect of many places, things or people.
Regardless, each type of story requires the same thing: A thread that holds them together. The thread can, and should, vary widely from one story or essay to the next. You could make pictures of a thousand guys with beards but not have a cohesive body of work unless something other than beards makes the images relate to each other, for instance. Or you could follow one person’s life for years and still not have a set of pictures that tell a story if you’ve not had a narrative in mind.
A way of saying this is that you could make a bunch of threads and work very hard to do so. But that doesn’t mean those threads make a tapestry.
Why is it important to work on both stories and essays? On the one hand, having both in your portfolio makes you a more attractive hire. On another, each requires a different set of skills and mind set. Together they push what you can achieve, they help you reach a potential you might not otherwise.
Working on picture stories tends to require immense personal skills. Being able to stay in a setting for great lengths of time isn’t easy. The subject has to want you there and getting to that point isn’t a clear path. The story changes, life gets complicated, you have to adjust and reinterpret - it’s like knitting a sweater for someone while you’re in a boxing match. And it’s not like that at all.
Essays, on the other hand, require a clarity of seeing. You define the point of view entirely, often by connecting seemingly unrelated objects, occurrences or times. They require diligence and persistence that is different from a story.
Then there are topics that require both approaches. You can do individual picture stories that combine like an essay to deal with a larger topic than one person or place might reveal. Eugene Richards' Americans We and others he has done come to mind as some of the best examples of this approach.
In the end, both forms tell a story. You’ve just gotten there by different paths. The more paths we follow in this photographic life, the richer we become.