Even the earliest photographers understood that a picture says a thousand words. The storytelling potential of a snapped image has been explored ever since cameras first became commercially available. Also, that same potential is a driving force in the redefinition of traditional photography.
What that means depends on who you ask.
For some photographers, it’s about using a bare minimum to reimagine traditional portrayals of cultural stories and characters. For others, it’s about the type of photos they take, whether the process requires detailed planning or not. There are also photographers for whom that redefinition means unlearning everything they knew before and blazing new trails for themselves.
Reimagination & Simplification
For photographers Kahran and Regis Bethencourt, using the art of storytelling to redefine traditional photography means simplifying their process. It also means smashing negative stereotypes by reimagining cultural images that, traditionally, have been presented almost exclusively within the context of one specific group of people.
The Bethencourts described how they involved 14 young black women in a photoshoot that reimagined the most iconic fairytale princesses that are traditionally envisioned as white girls. The team explained that they got the idea for the project when they heard black girls asking their parents if they could have hair like Elsa’s in Frozen, or skin like Cinderella.
One of the significant aspects of the project was how simple the Bethencourts kept it. Traditionally a project of this scope would have required a vast amount of equipment. Also, the subject matter dictated the need for hair, makeup, and costumes. However, as they shot in Los Angeles and Atlanta, they were forced to streamline their requirements dramatically.
The Bethencourts offered the following tips for shooting story-telling photos with a simplified set-up:
- Create unique moods using lighting and effects such as large modifiers for soft images and contrast-creating modifiers for dramatic, powerful photos.
- Start with what you’ve got. If all you have is one light, use it to the best of your ability. Let your imagination run free. As a photographer, your only limitation is a lack of imagination.
- Add impact by thinking out of the box. Don’t be afraid to experiment with modifiers, gels, and different angles once you’re happy with the main shots.
- Learn traditional rules. Then break them to develop a unique personal style.
One Or Many Images
Picture books, photographic essays, and media such as film have conditioned many of us to think we need multiple photos to tell a story. Even so, most photographers are at least vaguely aware that a single image can be a capable storyteller.
In an interview, National Geographic photographer Dave Yoder said that you should aim to tell as much of the story as possible in one photo, and the focus should be on truthfulness, even if that means the image leaves questions unanswered. Yoder feels that the best photos that tell stories are those that represent emotional, environmental, or social issues in ways that transcend barriers of language.
Plans & Inspiration
While some areas of photography, such as photojournalism, street, and wildlife photography traditionally take things as they come, the discipline traditionally teaches people to plan their photos. That planning may include mapping out the story you want to tell, the composition of a picture according to the rule of thirds, the mood, and how to achieve it using props, lighting, and other equipment.
Documentary photographer Jill Freedman implied that she begins with a plan, finds a way to initiate it, and then allows life to happen. She gave the example of getting permission to travel with a circus and photograph its performers, which meant getting an in-depth look. Cole Thompson, on the other hand, avoids planning stories and photos. He finds planning and preparation too restrictive, so he goes looking for inspiration that fires up his passion and vision instead.
Telling Stories From The Heart
When asked how to tell photo stories that resonate with those who see them, Mexican-born photographer Anuar Patjane said that it doesn’t happen if you follow rules and formulas. Instead, you need to immerse yourself in your subject to tell a story from the heart. In doing so, you’ll create a portfolio of work that resonates emotionally with viewers. Patjane added that photographers who stay comfortable, or who are afraid of getting wet or feeling cold, produce mediocre work.
Avoiding Cliché & Embracing The Unexpected
Giles Duley is another photographer for whom storytelling and the redefinition of traditional photography mean doing planning and groundwork before embracing the unexpected. He spent 10 years as a successful fashion and band photographer before he changed his trajectory.
Duley left the world of fashion and music, and started working as a documentary photographer in conflict and post-conflict zones. Duley said that the move was prompted by his desire to tell stories that were not being told. He explained that his decision meant more than a change of location and subject. He had to alter his entire approach to photography.
Speaking to Fold Magazine, Duley explained that, when shooting fashion or bands, he would visualize the photoshoot in his head. After arriving in the studio or location, he would inevitably need to change his plans in response to a circumstance or editorial interference.
When Duley switched to documentary photography, he realized he needed complete control of his work. Allowing editors or art directors to contribute was no longer a feasible option. He added that he also realized he couldn’t control every aspect of the process. Instead of planning photoshoots as he would’ve done when shooting in a studio, he now researches how other photographers have treated a location or subject. Then, he tries to understand the visual landscape of places, and the events that happened there.
According to Duley, this approach allows him to avoid clichés, to not take photos he or others may feel he’s expected to take, and to produce images that tell surprising stories.
Redefining traditional photography in favor of the art of storytelling is not about being an iconoclast. Instead, it builds on a traditional foundation to tell stories that are emotive, creative, and meaningfully real.
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