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Does every picture tell a story? – Some thoughts on visual storytelling.

Story is one of the chief means by which we communicate. Many cultures have a rich tradition of oral storytelling, and while the multi-billion dollar movie business is modern society’s main storytelling medium it could be argued that storytelling through the written word is a primary basis of communication which will always have an important role in forming the values of society. Photography, on the other hand, is not an easy medium in which to tell a story, yet a photograph which has something to say to the viewer can make for a compelling image. Photography is not primarily a means for telling a story and many images are admired for the beauty of the image or its technical achievement. When compared to a movie or a book, which tell their stories through words or moving pictures, a photograph is a static medium which has to work hard to convey its story, yet for many it is this very fact that gives story telling through photography its strong appeal. The viewer has to ‘read’ the story in the image and sometimes the story can be whatever the viewer wants it to be. To quote photographer Ansel Adams, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer”. The picture can trigger a story in the mind of the viewer but the photographer can help by capturing a dynamic image which has something to communicate.

The photograph below captures a moment in time and we don’t know what has happened before or after the photograph, what the two characters are saying to each other, what they will do next, even what the pigeon is thinking! Yet, it is very possible to create a story from this image.

In the following photograph, even though there is just a single character in the photograph, his face expresses a lot and each viewer can create their own scenario. My view is that his face shows relief that he has finally managed to sit down after a hard day’s work but each viewer can decide what he is thinking based on his facial expression and body language. The setting (a chair on a street corner) provides some context to help form a story.

Some photographs are more poem than story, and they move us in different ways and for different reasons. David du Chemin, ‘The Soul of the Camera’

Story telling through photography has to draw viewers into the picture, invite them to think about what is going on. This allows the viewer to come up with a story himself. I have no doubt that I have often seen in photographs something which the photographer may not have planned, and I’m sure this is true for all of us. As with music or art, some photographs resonate with us individually in a particular way. We bring our own experiences, our personality, our personal memories to the picture and these can trigger a response, emotional or otherwise. From the photographer’s point of view, the important thing is that we are able to convey some meaning to the viewer through our images.

According to Dan Westergren, photographer and former director of National Geography, ‘In the simplest of terms, a storytelling photograph must show what the story is about’.

Visual Storytelling

Storytelling is a means of self-expression, whether the story is told in prose, poetry, film, art, photography or any other medium. Photographers can speak through images in the same way that poets and writers speak through words or artists express themselves through the medium of paint. Visual storytelling is often associated with a series of images ordered in a specific way that are somehow connected to narrate the story, yet single shots can also tell a story. Images can be strong and easy to interpret or they can be ambiguous, where the story is unclear and the viewer has to interpret the story and each viewer’s interpretation is valid.

This sequence of shots tells a simple story of a common occurrence in my local park.

All is quiet on the water until...

The picture below implies a story. Although it doesn’t show human involvement in the garden, it does imply that involvement.

Sometimes story can be conveyed well through black and white images, other times human expressions convey emotions – frustration, boredom, excitement – which imply a story. Or maybe it's just an abandoned bicycle...

In many ways, it is up to the viewer to interpret the story from the elements provided and it can be left to each viewer to judge the merit or otherwise of each image as a storytelling medium. To quote David du Chemin again, ‘When we create something, we do our best with it and then we set it out into the world to be experienced by others who will do with it what they will’.


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