Canon 20D, 20mm, 1/400 @ f/4, ISO 400
Northern Ethiopia. This girl was playing on the rusted-out shell of a tank. I asked about her parents. “Father killed in war, mother died of AIDS.” I heard this story over and over again. I have images of her smiling, but it’s this one—capturing an unresolved look of uncertainty—that best hints at her story.
THROUGH THE AGES, myth and story have been the primary vehicles for communicating meaning and truth. They are not merely the stuff of bedtime tales. The primary storytelling medium in our culture is the cinematic film, and given the billions of dollars attached to the film industry—as well as the royal status of its stars—it should be clear how important story is to us. An understanding of the elements of story and how they can be incorporated into your photography will make stronger images.
It doesn’t matter what you are photographing; a sense of story will make your images more engaging and compelling.
Story told in a single frame of a photograph, and story told in a movie or novel, are very different kinds of story. One occurs over a minute period of time, perhaps 1/500th of a second, while the others are told over longer periods—hours—and reflect experiences or circumstances that span days, weeks, years, even generations. What makes it difficult to tell a story in a single frame is the inability to form a classic plotline, but this doesn’t make storytelling impossible; it simply confines us to certain conventions. When those conventions are understood, they allow us to tell, or at the very least imply, more powerful stories.
When I consider the unique challenges of telling stories within the confines of a single photographic frame, two aspects of storytelling come to mind. The first is the study of themes that tie the image to our deeper, more universal human experience. The second is conflict, revealed in the frame by contrasts. With regard to technique, the photo essay is the time-honored means by which photographers have told longer stories, and composition the means within our single or multiframe stories to move the plot forward.
A story succeeds or fails on empathy, or lack of it. If you don’t care, it’s not a relevant story. Understanding themes offers a quick way toward understanding how to tell a story about which people will care deeply.
Ask a friend what the last film they saw was about, and the usual answer will be a recap of the plotline. Character X did this, and then this happened, and to get out of it he did this and this, etc. That’s plot. But a plotline doesn’t describe what a movie is about. The plotline is a story of, for example, a boy and girl, but the story is about something more. Perhaps it was about revenge or love or the search for meaning—the deeper theme that moves the film from beginning to end. Remember the earlier discussion about subject versus subject matter? Same thing. The theme is what the movie—or photograph—is about; it’s the subject. The plot is the way in which it’s told, or the way the photograph is composed and shot.
If photographs are to tell or imply a story, they must be about something. Truth, justice, love, or the lack of these things, or the search for those things, are strong universal themes. Loneliness, betrayal, our tendency to self-destruct, death, resurrection, the bond of family—all of these are strong themes. And the more universal a theme you echo in your image, the more powerful it will be and the broader the audience. If you’re thinking that this is a little too deep for your style of photography, what about themes like harmony, balance, or beauty? What about the old versus the young or new, or the past versus the present?
Canon 5D, 17mm, 1/125 @ f/9, ISO 800
Varanasi, India. As the sun rises over the River Ganges, this man does his daily devotion—an act that’s been continued by millions of people over thousands of years. His search for absolution and meaning is one of the deepest themes of human existence, and it resonates across lines of gender, race, and creed.
Canon 5D, 17mm, 1/250 @ f/7.1, ISO 100
Havana, Cuba. A pigeon flies over the St. Francis of Assisi convent in Havana. A dove occupies a strong place in Christian symbolism, as does the cross, and even St. Francis himself. But on a more universal level, a dove alighting over a sacred place—in this case directly toward the top of the frame—is rich in symbolism and meaning, and therefore has greater universal appeal than if this were a flamingo flying over a hamburger joint (though that’s an image I’d very much like to see for other reasons entirely).
Make your images about something. It doesn’t have to reflect deep brooding themes. It can be a photograph of an orchid that’s about serenity or the wonder of the natural world. It can be about innocence or the simple power of a line. An image of a crocus breaking through the crust of snow and ice can resonate with themes of resurrection and new life. Portrait photographers: make your image about the person you are shooting, reveal the character underneath, and say something about them. Whatever you’re photographing, make it about something, so the people who see your image feel something, so they care about your image.
This can’t be overstated: the more powerful and universal the theme in your image, the more powerful and universal the impact of the image. To put it another way: the more deeply they care, the stronger the story.
I realize that not everyone feels the need to harness their inner George Lucas. Most of us just want to make photographs. I get that. But if our photographs echo something deeper, they will appeal to a greater number of people. Take, for example, a photograph of a child looking very camera-aware and with a neutral expression, wearing traditional clothing—this photograph may tell you something about the child and the culture in which she lives, and that will have some appeal, but it won’t be universal. But when that child laughs, she immediately displays a positive emotion that is understood and shared universally, and the photograph is imbued with that universal appeal. Take the example of a Nepalese man—his portrait has general appeal, but when you photograph him praying your image is no longer about the man but about the search for forgiveness or connection with God, a powerful theme that gives your image universal appeal.