You may think the purpose of photography is to capture interesting images, but actually, that’s only half of it. If your photos fail to make an impact you might be approaching photography all wrong.
For as long as humans have existed we’ve expressed ourselves creatively through storytelling using the mediums of singing, drawing and dance. Art fulfils a human desire to communicate, share experiences and bond.
Photography is a more modern medium to tell stories. By picking up a camera you deem yourself a storyteller, showing the world to people from your unique perspective. Yet so many photographers fail to take this mission seriously. For our work to make any sort of impact it’s important our photographs convey a story to capture interest and communicate with others. You’ll notice the photos that win awards always tell stories.
So how can we be more effective storytellers?
It helps to ask yourself: why is this subject I’m photographing interesting to me? How can I show that? Why will other people care?
I like to do a little ‘why’ exercise whenever I need to understand my motivations. Let’s say you notice a leaf and decide to photograph it. Ask yourself, why am I drawn to photographing this leaf?
Well the light is hitting it in an interesting way.
Why is it interesting?
Because it lights up the structure of the leaf.
Why is THAT interesting?
Because the structure of the leaf and the way it curves resembles a spine.
Now you know exactly why this leaf is interesting to you, how to frame it to tell that story, and what you need to emphasise.
I use this repetitive process of asking ‘why’ in lots of situations because it helps you drill down to a granular level so you can really understand your motivations. We take too much at face value without understanding what truly drives us.
Story does not need to be obvious. Granted, the most powerful photos have an obvious and engaging story. But stories can also be small and quiet too, as if to say, hey, look at this interesting thing you may not have seen before. Remember, the purpose of story is to connect and share so not every story needs to change the world. It might simply say – ‘hey, it’s not all bad, look at how beautiful the world is’.
Storytelling does not stop with image making, however. It’s so very important to also write stories to accompany your work. One of my pet peeves is those Facebook challenges where you’re asked to share photos without telling the stories of them. Why do these challenges exist? Here is your chance to share something meaningful about your life, to help us connect with you, but instead we get a feed full of random and meaningless photos. You could have told us why you were compelled to capture a tree, why that moment was important enough to share, and give us a glimpse into the things that drive you, but instead you miss an opportunity to truly connect with others. Something so many of us have lost and desperately need as we’re glued to our computers searching for meaning.
For photographers this means taking the opportunity when you share an image, to tell us what you were thinking, what were your challenges, why is this the particular image you’ve chosen to share? Help us learn from and connect with you and we’re far more likely to find your work engaging.
It’s important to remember that every art gallery includes explanations to accompany the displayed works because context is just as important as the content.
But of course, humans are complex creatures and many of us struggle with some pretty major visibility issues. Preferring to hide behind our work and let it talk for itself. Feeling like speaking out is egotistical or uninteresting to others. But take a look at the world’s biggest influencers. These are people who share stories of vulnerability. They use the circumstances of their lives to make us laugh or make us cry. They even start movements because by sharing their stories, people say, hey me too! And then you’ve got a connection. Storytelling has power and you should use it at every opportunity. That’s what it means to be a photographer.
There used to be a TV show in Australia during the 90s called Front Up where they would interview ordinary people going about their day and even now it was one of the most compelling things I’ve ever watched. People are fascinating, no matter who they are. And every one of us has incredible stories to share even if they only seem trivial to us. It’s the reason why Humans of New York is so incredibly popular and important. I bet you’ve never once looked at or read a HONY post and judged that person for sharing their view. So why would people do that to you?
Sharing stories is what all social media is built upon. In fact Facebook’s algorithm won’t share a post as widely if it’s constructed more like a sales pitch than something entertaining or personable. The best storytellers always rise to the top which is why we now have an influencer generation so if you want your images to be shared and seen, it’s important to do better with your storytelling.
If you’re looking for inspiration one of the most beautifully poignant and poetic storytellers I’ve ever come across is the singer Nick Cave. He runs an advice style column called The Red Hand Files where people write in with questions which he regularly answers. If you want to see examples of how to write about your life in a beautiful and entertaining way it’s one I recommend you sign up for.
Personally I hid for a long time behind the technique of my work. When I displayed my work in galleries the complementary blurb talked about how it was achieved, not what the work was about, thinking that the viewer would choose their own meaning. But one day a gallery director said to me, you’re not really getting this are you? And that made me pretty defensive because technique was a big part of my process. But I had a visitor’s book at that particular exhibition for feedback and a few people noted they would have liked to know more about the story of the art. So that’s when I learned a really important lesson about how storytelling is such a big part of creation. People hang a work on their wall because of what it means to them, not how it was created, and a story gives them something to talk about when showing the work to friends. So it’s really important to take some extra time to craft a written message that explains in simple terms what you’re trying to convey.
When I did start sharing more personal stories to accompany my work someone said to me, you really shouldn’t be putting things like that on the Internet. You cannot win! But ultimately I make art to spread a broader message. I have works that address climate change, emotional abuse and depression. These were created specifically to spread a message – to educate and draw attention to important causes and I cannot do that, I cannot connect with people and have them understand with no words and just an image alone, because they may interpret the work differently from how I intended. And so I choose to be open and vulnerable so I can make a connection with others. You have two mediums at your disposal to enhance your impact. Use them!
This does take a little practice to get right, but there are no rules. Tell us a story, share from the heart. Introspection is incredibly important as a creator. We capture things and share them because they are important or interesting so it’s crucial to be mindful about what you want to convey, both visually and in writing. It will also make your work more powerful once you know what drives you.