Photographer: Chances Are, You’re Not A Storyteller – Nor A Photographer

Good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Visual stories do too.

This is a follow up to my blog “Why I Never Talk About ‘Story’ In Street Photography”.

It's common for photographers to go beyond a few lines to describe what's going on in a shot they took. In fact, these captions tend to turn into stories...which somehow automatically betstows upon said photographer the title of storyteller. This is the trend. As far as I can tell, it's been going on for decades in the professional photography community. Here's looking at you, Magnum!.

Recently it's also slipped into the mainstream. Mainstream, as in anyone with a phone or a camera. I don't bemoan the fact, but at some point those with good intentions and ambitions for their photography and storytelling should be on a path which enhances both forms - as opposed to confusing one function with the other and risk coming off as a hack, or worse, as a parrot of the faux storytelling phenomenon.

Let's make an assumption, which is: most of the time, captioning is enough. A good caption, whether it be a few lines, a few paragraphs or pages, suffices to play its role in supporting a single image.

It follows that the second assumption would be: you needn't focus on the fact that some or all of your captions tell a story. A photographer doesn't deserve a medal for this nor special recognition or status. It doesn't change the fact that thousands of photographers who caption their work do so without making a peep about being a storyteller. Perhaps because they let their work speak for itself, as a first principle? They caption their images as necessary and move on - to practice the art of photography.

Putting the story before the picture - the single image is never a story

This is the biggest problem I see. There's always a grand story to be told - and photographers love to spin their yarns as much as anyone. But never should a photographer place emphasis on storytelling over the craft of photography.

It pains me to spell it out this way. But I've seen so many shitty images in spaces like Instagram, where stories are told passionately about an image which falls short in so many ways, even aesthetically and technically - which is unpardnable. The irony is that the wonderful story wouldn't have existed if not for that shitty image. Begs the question: why be a photographer? And the answer to that question probably is because the photographer isn't good enough of a storyteller to make a living at it as a writer.

Exceptions aside, the vast majority of a photographer's work should speak for itself visually. And a true storyteller-photographer will always try to tell a story visually through multiple images - because a single image doesn't tell a story. A single frame only bears fruit when a story is written about it. But that's not visually telling a story. It's captioning.

Higher standards

Taking a good picture - or a good series of pictures, is the goal of every photographer. Storytelling isn't inherent nor necessary in this formula. It's an option.

I think inspiring photographer-storytellers should take a lesson from screenwriters, because interestingly enough, they're big proponents of "show don't tell". At least the ones who end up successfully selling their screenplays.

What does "show don't tell" mean?

According to Wikipedia: "Show, don't tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description. It avoids adjectives describing the author's analysis, but instead describes the scene in such a way that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions. The technique applies equally to nonfiction and all forms of fiction, literature including haiku[1] and Imagism poetry in particular, speech, movie making, and playwriting."

I rarely see "storytellers" in the photography world incorporate this technique into their stories...or their photography. It's a pity because the idea and photography are custom fit for one another!

Interestingly enough, Wikipedia states that the origin of this "concept is often attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, reputed to have said "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." What Chekhov actually said, in a letter to his brother, was "In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture."

We return to imagery. A picture. What photographers do. What storytellers should be doing.

Telling stories is fine. In some genres, like photojournalism, it's even king. But at some point in the storyteller's journey there must be a reckoning with photography. Because there's no such thing a photographer who tells visual stories with a single image. In my book, that only makes the photographer an obsessive captioner who's confused about what it means to be both a storyteller and photographer.

Single images don't tell stories.

Show don't tell.

The end.

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