How to Tell a Story? (Expressed in Portrait Photography)

I took the liberty of going out on a Sunday afternoon to sit somewhere and focus on my design growth. I went to my usual coffee shop only to find out that the entire street in which it resides had a power outage which will span for a day to revive. I didn’t see any other thing to do and since I was out anyway, I drove over to the reclamation area to check the new mall. I find that I liked this particular social hub as it was not overcrowded and had a complete grocery line which I appreciated very much. There were also some coffee shops around the area where I could finally work on my personal design passions.

As I walked along the escalator, I noticed a fair, soft-skinned and smartly dressed mestiza sitting among some stereotypical rugged men wearing dark shirts, dark patterned neck scarves with pricey cameras around their necks — which I found to be quite a contrasting sight. It was then that I realized that I have chanced upon an ongoing free portrait photography workshop and the fair maiden happened to be the model of the event. This was part of a series of workshops on different photography topics, and today’s was on Portrait Photography. I decided to check it out. I leaned myself beside the pillar like a hungry magpie and listened to an ongoing keynote. It was quite insightful yet there was one particular take-away that rung true on my head at that moment:

“… your composition must tell a story.”

This concept in design that most creatives know as “Tell a story” It is a phrase that I have first encountered when I met the great Parisian architect Laurent Becker for a portfolio critique session back in October 2016. I was told that I had placed so much work on a single PDF that it failed to catch the attention of the reader. Besides asking me to shorten my catalogue of works, he said that my portfolio should “tell a story”. I was perplexed by the concept because it took me months to arrange all the pieces in proper layout on InDesign, and yet it seemed that I haven’t achieved much. The phrase practically became a personal peeve. This has amplified as I went on with my life hearing the same advice from design professionals (and millennials) as well as reading the same insight from industry personality blogs. It isn’t wrong, but my experience has made a mental imprint of annoyance to that phrase — to a point that i would automatically activate my resting bitch face on the sound of that. Yet none of that happened during this session as this is the first time it was clearly defined to me.

A slide showed a picture of a fair skinned Asian model dressed in a black tank top and tight jeans, sporting a notorious gaze and sharp sexy eyes. She was framed in a distressed red wall with silver graffiti in the background. The overall composition was stunning for the sharpness and the colors were kept in check, but what made this picture ‘tell a story’ was the details embedded within. Primarily, the distressed graffiti wall proved to strengthen the impression that she is a hard boiled, bad-ass girl who you probably shouldn’t mess around with. Perhaps an appreciation of classic rock (or just rock) music would suit her taste? The dark tank top on fair skin not only showed the ideal contrast of the portrait’s subject, but also allowed you to analyze that she was a casual girl who is was not afraid to turn up the volume and perhaps could even ride a motorbike?. A demanding pose with her hands on her waist conveyed that she was not a typical run-in-the-mill crybaby and that she can handle life’s challenges as a strong-willed woman. All these details gave the stark impression of what the girl in the photo was all about, therefore, successfully telling a story.

We all know the power of perception visually. The saying “you cannot judge the book by its cover” could be a hard pill to swallow with “The First Impression” — which could last all your life. With the decrease of human attention span all over the world, don’t you think that the best way to communicate is though a second-long single glance? To cram everything about something, in a smart way. Simply tell a story! I finally understood the concept in general. It is all about the details, may it be imposed on the foreground or receding in the background, and maximising the vital role they play. It is about the fine execution of the Gestalt Principle. We are left to fill in the blanks with whatever is given to us visually. The trick now is to be able to efficiently put all these details together in a harmonious way. You can’t put all your works in one PDF after all. People will simply lose interest in the sea of content and design elements. As graphic designers, it should be our job to be able to visually guide a person effectively through the message we wish to convey. Besides all the principles we have in our arsenal (like visual weight, smart use of negative space, and color harmonies), it all boils down to the details.

With this newfound insight, I will keep this and use it in all compositions, may it be in design, photography or writing. The experience has been an eye-opener for me. A principle which is simple in context yet complex in execution like this one should be in the hearts of all creatives who intend to get a good message across. I understand this now and have begun to embrace the idea, and it is slowly rubbing out the peeve in a good way.

Now how about we find a good story to tell?

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