Visual Storytelling through Photography

Storytelling is timeless. Humans have been telling stories for a very long time. We tell stories to share memories, to preserve our history, to promote ideas, and to be entertained. In the past, people would gather around the fire or sit on front porches orally telling and retelling stories. Today many of us tell our stories through photography, either distributed worldwide via the Internet or more directly to our friends via Facebook, Instagram, or other social media sharing sites.

Storytelling and photography may seem like a natural pair, but being a good photographer does not necessarily translate into being a good storyteller. The first step in becoming a great visual storyteller is to figure out what type of story you want to tell. What kind of stories do you like? Do you prefer fact or fiction? Do you like short stories or long novels? Do you like memoirs or biographies? Do you prefer traditional writing or a more avant-garde approach? (To put it in dramatic terms, are you Samuel Beckett or Arthur Miller?) Just as you can choose what type of story to read, you have the same choice in deciding what type of photographic story you want to tell. Just remember that, regardless of the style, the purpose of any story is to interest, amuse, or instruct the audience.

© 2009 Michelle Bogre

Not all photo stories are linear. Some are conceptual, poetic, or elliptical. This long-term project on family farms, which spans families, states, and types of agriculture, would fall under the poetic or elliptical category. The images vary from portraits to landscapes to still lifes. Examples from this photo series are included in this article in no particular order.

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist (and to take you back to college English classes, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina), wrote an essay in 1899, titled What is Art? He speaks of art as an “infection” whereby the artist infects others with “the feelings he has lived through” so that “other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.” Tolstoy was using the word “art,” but we could substitute the word “story.”

A great story infects its audience with the passions and feelings of the storyteller. To tell an in-depth story, research is critical. The more you know about a subject, the more passionate you become and the more interesting your story is. Any good story shares some basic elements. Famed director George Lucas says that there are only two elements in a story: character and plot, or who and what. “Telling a story, it’s a very complicated process,” he said. “You’re leading the audience along. You are showing them things. Giving them insights.” We might augment Lucas’ two elements with the idea that a good story has a beginning (this photograph has to draw readers in, so make sure it’s strong), middle (this is where you take a lot of images), and end (the image that will resonate). You can also think about your story in terms of the five “Ws” that every journalism student learns: who, what, where, when, and why. You won’t want to include all five Ws in every image because that would become chaotic and confusing, but you should think about them when shooting and when you edit your story.

© 2006 Michelle Bogre

This image, taken in Lockwood, Missouri, would be the “middle” of a story: a typical hotdog roast on a Sunday afternoon. But on the farm, the bonfire is sometimes really big so the hotdog roasting sticks need to be very long.

You must visually vary the rhythm of your story, just as a great writer varies language with paragraphs that are descriptive, or reflective, or mostly dialogue and then within those paragraphs by varying sentence length. Multiple photographs become paragraphs and each photograph can be thought of as a sentence. To vary the rhythm photographically, you need to think about changing specifics, such as camera, subject distance, focal length of your lens, point of view, and depth of field, to name a few. Think about including close-ups and extreme close-ups with medium or wide shots. Finally, create visual rhythm by varying your composition. Remember the classic rule of thirds and think about the frame being divided into nine equal squares. If you have a higher-end digital camera, you can change your viewing screen to display a grid. Otherwise, mentally overlay the grid when you shoot. Put the most interesting part of the scene on the intersections of the lines. The middle of the frame is generally the least interesting place. Also think about the edges of your frame. They can be used to suggest what just happened or what is about to happen. Remember that a photograph exists in past, present, and future simultaneously. We view it in the present but the edges represent what just happened (past) or what is about to happen (future). You can suggest nuance or even narrative by placing a part of something on an edge. Run your eye around your frame as you compose. If the edges are empty, recompose.

© 2006 Michelle Bogre

Always look for moments or photographs that allow the eye to rest, such as this farm landscape comprised of horizontal stratifications of shades of brown, green, and yellow.

Finally, you should think about your process. How do you work best? Are you analytical? Intuitive? Linear? The way you approach life is probably how you also shoot and will inform your storytelling process.

When photojournalist Mary F. Calvert, a recipient of the 2014 $25,000 Alexia Foundation’s Woman’s Initiative Grant for her long term project on sexual assault in the military, The Battle Within: Sexual Assault in America’s Military, begins a project, she creates a shot list. This is similar to a storyboard, which is a series of images (usually sketched) to previsualize the story. For Phase I and II of this project, recently exhibited at the Visa Pour l’Image documentary photo festival in Perpignan, France, Calvert first thoroughly researched the issue. She knew of upcoming Congressional hearings, which she attended to meet the women who were testifying. After hearing their stories of their lives after the assaults, Calvert knew that was the story to tell. “I thought about the symptoms that occurred in the aftermath of the rape, such as depression, PTSD, fear, or paranoia,” says Calvert. “I created a shot list to make sure I had images that showed all of these symptoms.”

© 2009 Michelle Bogre

This photograph of crawfish farmer Edwin Miller was taken at exactly 6:10 a.m. in Gueydan, Louisiana, because that was the moment when the morning light was perfect. I had scouted out this location the morning before, noting the sunrise.

Sebastian Liste, a documentary photographer and sociologist keenly interested in how contemporary issues, such as endemic violence, have produced profound cultural changes in Latin America and the Mediterranean has a very different approach. He works more intuitively than Calvert. Because his approach and stories are less linear, he doesn’t plan the images in advance. “I don’t work on a mega level story,” says Liste. “My stories are so specific to a micro community that I can’t know in advance how I am going to tell the story or even what story I am going to tell. I pick an area to investigate and I find people to spend time with. I listen to them to find out what my story will be.”

© 2009 Michelle Bogre

When you are shooting a story, keep your eyes open for unexpected moments such as this one. While I was wandering around, a young piglet emerged from a barn. Tightly composed, this image resembles a Renaissance painting.

Although their approaches are completely different, both Liste and Calvert are wonderful storytellers. You will discover your technique as you practice telling stories. Start with something close to home and easy to work on. Think about storytelling as developing your own emotional narrative through images. What you choose to tell, what interests you, and how you tell it makes you unique.

Michelle Bogre, an Associate Professor of Photography at Parsons The New School for Design is a documentary photographer, intellectual property lawyer, and author of two books, Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change and Photography 4.0: A Teaching Guide for the 21st Century, both published by Focal Press.

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