Telling stories with images

As a people photographer I need to worry about lots of different things when I am creating images.  On the technical side I need to make sure that the exposure is correct, the lights are properly placed to create the desired effect, all the settings on my camera are what I want, and  the relative intensity of multiple lights are all within spec for what I need.  On the creative side I need to worry about composition, perspective, shapes, lines, foreground and background - also need to make sure that the color palette used makes sense, and that there are no elements distracting or not contributing to the work.  Furthermore, I need to be concerned with my subject’s expression, making sure I am engaging him or her and there is genuine emotion and human interest in the image.

As if all these considerations were not enough, the photographer has to really worry about the story telling aspects of the image.  Story telling is not something that requires a sequence of images - although traditional photo essays do use a layout of multiple images to tell a story about something.   It’s also important to apply the term “story telling”  to a single image.   And what I mean by this is the answer to the question “what is this image about?”  - for example, consider this photo of my daughter doing her geometry homework:

What is this image about?

The answer to the question “What is this image of” is simple and factual - it’s a photo of a girl, about nine years old, sitting at the table and working with paper, pencil and a compass, with a fireplace in the background.  The girl is not looking at the camera.    This answer doesn’t tell us what the image is about.

Story telling has to do with the universal feelings, emotions or intellectual responses to an image.  It has to do with how we connect personally with what the image represents.   We can say that the image above is about education and learning, about healthy children doing their work, about the importance of mathematics for children, including girls.  The story is what we conclude looking at the work - hopefully what we conclude is what the photographer expected us to conclude - this is what I call targeted story telling - there is a message and the viewer gets it.  Sometimes the story in an image is open ended and ambiguous, open to interpretation, requiring the viewer to fill in his or her interpretation based on his or her own experiences and backgrounds.  For example, this image below, named “Polyphemus”  contains a story, but the story is neither obvious nor the same for everyone:

What is this image about?

What is this image about?

Does an image of a person, a portrait, have to contain a story? Does it have to be about something?  My answer to that question is most definitely yes.  A portrait must communicate something about the subject beyond his physical appearance.  A capture of facial features is what we expect from a passport photo.  A real portrait must be about the subject in a very personal and unique way.  Next time you look at an image, or you are the subject of an image, ask yourself - what is this image about?  And hopefully there is an answer, or more, available to you.

Category: Art


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