How to tell a story with pictures (part 2)



A simple way to summarize what I talked about in part one of How to tell a story with pictures would be to say: “To tell a story with pictures you first have to understand how photographs operate.” That sounds obvious and simple, yet is not a given. By its nature, photography lends itself to simple, often literal interpretations, and such an approach can only lead to simple, if not simplistic stories. Before proceeding, I need to talk about what I actually mean when I use the word “story.” (more)

For me, the word “story” is a placeholder. When you look up how “story” is defined, there appears a large variety of options, including “a narrative, either true or fictitious,” “the plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc.,” or “a report or account of a matter; statement or allegation.” In general, I am not too concerned about defining the word “story” too precisely (or narrowly) because photography can tell all kinds of stories. It’s important to keep that in mind.

When asking yourself how to tell a story with pictures, you need to figure out what kind of story you’re dealing with. Does the story have a beginning and an end? Of course, every story has some beginning - the first words or the first picture. But in terms of its own structure, it might not operate the same way. A story might forever circle around itself (again, not literally), never finding any kind of resolution.

If a beginning and an end are absent, telling the story will be much different than having one where there is a beginning and an end. In the latter case, the main problem is to figure out how to get from the former to the latter. There are lots of possibilities here as well, with some cases more obvious than others. A strictly temporal or spatial evolution often is fairly simple to organize: You “move” from point 1 in time to point 2, or from point A in space (some location) to point B (some other location).

Storytelling involves taking the reader or viewer by the hand and to lead her or him through the story. It’s important to realize that when somebody decides to become a reader or viewer, they are giving you something: They are willing to have you tell them where to go, what to do, at least to some extent. This is why the beginning is so important. A viewer1 brings the willingness to enter a world, but whatever that world might be its rules have to be consistent. The rules might not make perfect sense compared with the viewer’s normal world, but if they are consistent (and if the viewer is willing to follow you down the road) the story can unfold.

This is a very important aspect of storytelling, the fact that a viewer will accept things that might not make sense in ordinary life, but that are consistent. If there is this consistency, then as a viewer you will be able to navigate yourself through the story (even if your power to do so is limited by the storyteller). Of course, we all know this basic fact of storytelling from any good science-fiction movie, say: Of course, none of the stuff is real, but it’s consistent, so you only have to suspend your disbelief at the beginning2.

This means that as a photographer, you need to be concerned about establishing context - regardless of what story you are going to tell. Do you need to establish context or not? If your story plays out in what is the world most people are familiar with, the problem doesn’t arise. If the story happens in a world that in whatever way is unfamiliar to most people, you need to introduce that world.

What all of this means is not only that you have to understand how your photographs operate in general, but you also have to understand how they operate in the story you want to tell. Here, a one-size-fits-all solution often will not apply: Some images might serve different purposes than others. Some images might be key images, carrying the story, while others mostly establish context. There might be images that only function as a breathing space for the viewer etc. If you treat all images as working in the very same way, it’s not unlikely your storytelling will be clumsy. Your story will feel restrictive - a viewer might understand what is going on, but there will be no freedom for that viewer to find her/himself in the story.

This, after all, is what makes good storytelling, the freedom the viewer has to find her/himself in that story, to relate, in whatever way, with the protagonists or situation. A story that bars the viewer from establishing such a relationship in all likelihood will have a diminished effect: Why come back to it? What is there to learn other than that, which you get right away? Photographers often try to overdetermine the meaning of their images, and then they try to overdetermine the stories made from them, creating, essentially, a well-fitting straightjacket.

Thus, before you can tell a story as a photographer you need to understand what your images might say and how they say it. And you then need to understand how they might function in the kind of story you want to tell. You can’t edit and sequence your photographs properly if you don’t understand this. I believe that this is important to realize regardless of what kind of story we’re dealing with. Some stories can be told more easily than others. But even the simplest stories can be told in ways that diminish what could be had. As a matter of fact, the seemingly simplest stories are usually hardest to tell.

(to be continued)

Also see: Part 1; part 3

1 For reasons of simplicity, I’m just going to use “viewer” from now on since ultimately, I’m interested in visual storytelling.
2 The same also applies for most discussions happening in the political sphere: Once you accept some premise, however insane it might be (for example scientists lie), you will easily believe all kinds of conclusions logically derived from this (for example global warming is not real).

More from Joerg Colberg

Joerg Colberg is the founder and editor of Conscientious.