Leaving Clues and Provoking Questions
A great storyteller doesn’t tell absolutely everything. She tells enough to make you care, to tell the story and move the plot, and no more. Extraneous details don’t provide anything more than confusion. In fact, more than just cluttering the story, a flood of details kills the mystery and the engagement. A good story has a sense of wonder, it raises curiosity, and it leaves something untold for us to gnaw on. Perhaps it’s a glance out of frame; we’re familiar with the look of affection a woman has on her face, but who is she looking at? A face moves into silhouette as you press the shutter, and suddenly a photo of a specific woman is a photo of a woman around whom there is some mystery.
What you leave in the frame must be part of the story, must be part of the visual plot, even if that’s simply establishing the setting. Be very selective. Leaving a cluttered background by shooting wide and indiscriminately does not establish setting; it’s lazy photography. The more elements there are within the frame, the less power each of them has, and your story becomes diluted.
Leave enough clues to tell the story, and exclude enough to create a sense of mystery. Unanswered questions engage a viewer and create an interaction between the image and the viewer—a deeper level of viewing that allows us to think and feel more connected to the story. Similarly, placing details in the image that are discovered only after looking at it for a while can contribute to a feeling of surprise, even the feeling of being let in on something. It gives the image an extra layer, engaging the viewer longer or more often.
Canon 20D, 32mm, 1/1600 @ f/5.6, ISO 400
Ethiopia. I’ve always loved this one. I was standing outside the Land Cruiser, taking a needed bathroom break, when this shepherd and his goats appeared out of nowhere. The ambiguity and unanswered questions about what this young man is looking at are what I like most about the image. The fact that he’s looking out of frame and leaves little nose room (the space between the nose and the edge of the frame) breaks a general rule that says you should point the gaze of a subject into the frame and not outward. Somewhere inside me there’s a maverick who likes breaking rules. I run with scissors, too.