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Photography and Storytelling are Different Things

Understanding the role of the medium will make you better at it

Photo by Josh S. Rose, 2018

I know what people are talking about when they recommend that, as a photographer, you should try to “tell a story,” — they are saying to create something that stirs imagination in the viewer, in much the same way the emotions of a story can stir you — but when you really break down actual storytelling media, like books, movies, comics, TV shows, radio shows, serialized podcasts, etc., then you realize that the telling of a story is not quite the role of the photographer, or the objective of a photograph.

Before we get into what photographs do, let’s look at the components of a story. In its simplest forms…

Character

Really needs no introduction — these are the people in a story: the hero, the villain, the best friend, the romantic interest, the fool, the mother, the ghost, the talking baby.

Objects

The everyday things that make an environment real: the perfectly placed pen next to the perfectly placed pad of paper, the cords like vines behind the computer, the overturned coffee cup, the fat thumbs and the dirty keyboard. Objects are the things around you that depict a scene but also can symbolize bigger things.

Environments & Settings

The semi-tangible things around you that fill the senses: those gray, low-hanging clouds, the chill of the air, the last light of day, the smell of hot dogs and bacon from a street vendor, the crying baby on the airplane. These are the environmental considerations that place me somewhere in the world, familiar or foreign.

Moments

Her hand accidentally brushes over a stranger’s in a subway. The mouthful of french fries, hastily swallowed. The text message meant for someone else. The bee sting. Moments are the little life things that constantly transpire. A storyteller picks and chooses which ones to describe in order to drive a story forward.

Context

It’s wartime, 1941. No, it’s wartime 2099! We’re in a submarine, we’re the last people alive on earth, we run a deli, run in marathons (but have only one leg), we’re in a failing marriage, we’re a mob boss whose ambivalence toward life leads to therapy. Larger context is the stuff beyond what I know from my senses, but becomes the knowledge that affects my feelings about them.

Scenes

Moments and dialogue that push the story forward. A break-up over dinner is going to involve a number of moments: yelling, silences, anger, sadness, etc. Put it all together and you have an entire scene. Which is still not a story. Not yet. A scene is important to a photographer, as we’ll get into, because a photographer might have the scene in her head — and direct the shot accordingly — while still only capturing a small piece of it in a single image.

Acts

Put enough scenes together, fill them with characters, objects, moments and context, then choreograph it and you’re well on your way to — no, not a story — but certainly an act. These acts put it all into manageable chunks of storytelling — the creation of tension, the dramatic pause, the side story and, hopefully, some resolution to it all.

Or maybe it was all a dream.

No matter how you choose to resolve it, the acts come together, in total, to create a story. The story is all of it.

Themes

Macbeth is a tragedy about the pursuit of power. Casablanca is a romance about unrequited love. These are themes and they go the other direction from the specifics of objects and and scenes — they are over-simplified summaries of the much larger thing going on.

So What Is A Photograph?

Okay, so we’ve talked about story — and it’s plain to see that it simply covers more territory — namely those things that occur over time — that a photograph is not capable of. But a photograph can actually capture many of the things described: a character (portrait), an object (still life), environment and setting (landscape). And it can rise above the literal reflection of things and start to convey the scene and even the theme. Also, when done artfully, a photograph pulls from the viewer many emotions we feel when engaged in a story. But the photograph does not tell the whole story, as it cannot put together both the creation and possible resolution of tension. It cannot describe the entirety of a journey. And while a character can be incredibly depicted in a still, he/she cannot be fully transformed or ideologically changed within the single frame.

Still, in a great photograph, I believe we can.

So, what is a photograph?

A Moment

One of the things a photograph can do magnificently is capture a moment. And a moment is no small thing. A deep sliver of humanity, even history, can exist within a moment. Take this photo:

Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Bill Clinton shot by J. Scott Applewhite

Do you know the story behind this photo? It’s one of intrigue and scandal. Of infidelity, hubris and lies. It involves, of all people, a president who has had an affair and who cannot sweep the events of that affair under the great seal rug of the White House. The story has a beginning, middle and end. In its own way, it finds resolution — but there was a moment where it could have gone either way and we really didn’t know. This larger-than-life man could have fallen from his great height, in Shakespearean fashion. And a crucial scene of that great drama was a speech given on the White House lawn where the president would let the world know about the impeachment inquiry. And this photo was taken in the Rose Garden, only seconds before that speech. It’s quite a moment.

But it is not the full story.

A photograph captures a moment. Cartier-Bresson called it “the decisive moment,” which alludes to just how hard it is to achieve — the exact fraction of a second that seems to hold in it all the emotional weight of the larger context.

I find it freeing to think of a photograph this way — and not with the added pressure to try to accomplish more than what can be caught in a moment. Besides, a moment is incredible. A moment can be transformative. And a well-captured one can do something an entire story cannot — it can be immediately transportive. Either completely outside us, or back to somewhere inside us that perhaps we had buried.

A Scene

If the moment is what you’re shooting, I like to think of a scene as how you’re shooting. Because how you decide to light it, how you crop, how you cast it, direct it, choose and point your lens at it… all build out your scene. And affect how we feel about the image.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

In a photograph, a lot of different elements of storytelling are at play — there’s characters (like this couple), environment (like this restaurant) and objects (like the dishes, glasses, etc.). Together, all these things are enough information for me to envision a scene playing out. But I still must imagine how that plays out. And this is where the role of photographer starts to have an enormous affect on the image. Because the more a photographer adds to that frame, the more clues I get as to what’s going on. And the more artistically rendered those elements are, the more heightened and evocative the potential of the final image will be.

Take for example, this dinner scene:

Photo by Gregory Crewdson

This is an image by artist Gregory Crewdson and it shows just how much the hand of an artist affects the emotions of a scene. Everything matters — the lighting, the casting, the objects, all of it. And this is why I like to think of the scene as the how of photography. Sure, you’re going to capture a meal at a table — but how?

A scene is the photographer’s artistry at play. And while it’s a highly-effective way to convey emotion, it’s still not a story. In Crewdson’s image above, we never learn the reasons for the questions raised with the odd juxtapositions of subjects and dramatic execution. And it’s not even clear that the complete arc of that situation is something the artist cares about. We are meant to fill in the blanks here — in a near-exact opposite from the Applewhite image of President Clinton, where the image is made more powerful from the context, Crewdson’s images find equally incredible emotional places without the context.

Context Is Everything

And this is the thing with storytelling versus photography — in stories, the author gives us the context and in photography the photographer lets you go discover it on your own, either through history or imagination.

As a (traditional) storyteller, I expect you to lead me along on a journey, giving (or revealing to) me larger context along the way in order to help guide my feelings about what I’m observing. But as a photographer, you do not get to play with larger context and so your power to affect emotion is in understanding the emotional components within your moments and scenes. You leave small clues, perhaps in a gesture, a ray of light, a shadow or expression. The more sophisticated photographer learns to use all of it masterfully, in seemingly any setting. But those are like brush strokes one perfects over years and years of training. As hard as any author’s craft. A different art, but every bit as beautiful.

In the end, a photographer might lead you to a similar place as a storyteller. The theme can be felt deeply through either. But while the destination can feel familiar, the road to get there is different.


Thanks for reading. You can get the larger context of my photography at instagram.com/joshsrose. And, as always, if you like the article please show some love and follow along.