Photo Essay Analysis: The Metamorphosis of the Monarch


In the summer of 2019, I was delighted to find a single monarch caterpillar on the milkweed in my garden. Within a few days, the population exploded, with over 50 caterpillars eating my milkweed down to the ground. The abundance of caterpillars presented the perfect opportunity to document the growth cycle and metamorphosis of this dwindling species.


The goal of my photo essay is to educate people about the development cycle of the monarch butterfly and to raise awareness about their plight. Monarch populations are declining, but humans can help by cultivating an environment that is conducive to successful transformation from caterpillar to butterfly.

Through my photography, I sought to create “visual vignettes” which would each tell their own mini-story about that stage in the butterfly cycle (Gitner). Since I am always equipped with my iPhone, I used its camera as the primary vehicle for documenting this story – snapping photos every single day. Whenever I observed a transition in the butterflies, I would sit out in my garden for an extended period of time and snap photos from a variety of angles to best capture the moment.

The photographs presented in my photo essay connect the viewer to the monarchs, to help the viewer understand the complexity of the metamorphosis process and how fragile these creatures are. The hope is that if viewers can experience the beauty of these butterflies, they will then create environments that will support them. This approach is in line with the solutions focus proposed by David Campbell – with a focus on the positive rather than the negative to promote change for the greater good.


When it came time to assemble the photographs into a photo essay, I found that the photographs themselves told the story. Each photo provided insight into a phase of the metamorphosis. Since it is easier for people to process visual content, I decided to let the images speak for themselves. As people view the different phases, they will develop a more intimate relationship with the creatures and a respect for the delicacy of the process (Walter & Giglio).

Using photographs is a powerful way to help others understand the complexity of this metamorphosis process. As Eman Shurbaji points out, “presenting a story through photography communicates a different – often deeper understanding of the person, place, event or narrative then can be expressed through written or spoken word.”

The images themselves were all zoomed in very close to create a personal connection between the viewer and these creatures. The photographs felt intimate, as they were captured over several weeks, throughout several hours spent in the garden. In total I have a collection of over 250 photographs of these caterpillars and their transformation. I selected one from each phase of the metamorphosis process.

The pictures can be categorized as nature-based and realistic. They capture specific moments in time in the lifecycle of the monarch butterfly – but they provide insight into this process that occurs every single year throughout the country. Bergstrom (2009) would characterize this story as a narrative essay, telling the actual story of the development cycle of the butterflies as it happened.


A photograph was selected to represent each step in the metamorphosis cycle. All of the images were cropped for consistency into a square shape that would work well in the blog format. The images were cropped using the rule-of-thirds to place the focal point in one third of the photographs. The third that was used as the focal point varied, in order to create visual interest in the overall presentation. The editing decisions followed several of the ideas of Bushe, who emphasized simplicity of the design, with a focus on foreground and blurring of the background to reduce its visual weight. The images in the photo essay were of a consistent size and shape to reduce the cognitive load on the viewer, and put the focus on the images themselves.

Several photography principles were employed in the editing process, including:

Simplicity – only focusing on the butterflies themselves to get close to the action

Continuity – in the format, size and shape of the images

Consideration of color and lighting – photos were taken in the early morning and in the late afternoon to capture the perfect light

Distance – zooming in as close as possible to provide an intimate view that people would not normally see.

The images were arranged chronologically to show the development of the butterflies from caterpillars all the way to full grown butterflies. As Francoise Mouly, states in her TEDTalk, “a picture can capture a moment/chrystalize an event in a way that words couldn’t.” The photographs of the metamorphosis provide a level of detail about the process that is more difficult to visualize when only a textual description is provided.

The images also follow along with the Four Principles of Visual Storytelling, as outlined in the Action Graphics Blog:

Authenticity – the photographs are real and candid, not set up or posed in any way

– the photographs play on our emotions by helping us to see the beauty of the butterflies

– the photographs document a current and contemporary story – one that happened just this summer, but also presenting a bigger issue of decline which is happening now

Descriptions of the metamorphosis of the monarch butterfly are readily available online – it is easy to learn about the details of this scientific process. However photographs can provide a more intimate connection with these amazing creatures, and really illustrate the intricate details involved in the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. By presenting the images in a photo essay that shows this progression, with an emphasis on the importance of cultivating a garden rich with resources and safe from chemicals, it’s my hope that more people will support this important  creature in our ecosystem.


Bergstrom, B. (2009). Essentials of visual communication. London: Laurence King Publishing. (Module 1)

Bushe, L. ( ). Simplicity, Symmetry and More: Gestalt Theory and the Design Principles It Gave Birth To. Canva Blog (Module 2)

Campbell, D. (2018). Why it’s time for visual journalism to include a solutions focus. Witness Blog. (Module 4)

Gitner, S. ( ) Chapter 1. In what ways do we think about visual storytelling every day. In Multimedia storytelling for digital communicators in a multiplatform world. Visual Storytelling In what ways do we thinking about visual storytelling every day (Module 1)

Losowsky, A. (2011). Introduction. In R. Klanten, S. Ehmann and F. Schulze Visual storytelling: Inspiring a new visual language (4-7). Berlin: Die Gestalten Verlag.

Mouly, F. ( ) The stories behind the New Yorker’s iconic covers. TED TALK. (Module 4)

Shurbaji, E. ( ). Photo narratives.  (Module 4)

Walter, E. & Gioglio, J. ( ) The Power of Visual Storytelling: How to Use Visuals, Videos, and Social Media to Market Your Brand (Module 1)

Use the Four Principles of Visual Storytelling (Action graphics blog) (Module 1)

Watson, H. J. ( ). Data Visualization, Data Interpreters and Storytelling  (Module 3)

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