We all start out by viewing photography as an involved hobby. Sometimes this leads to becoming a professional. Sometimes it means becoming a skilled weekend warrior. No matter which way you go, there’s a good chance that the minute you pick up the camera is the minute you become the “family photographer.”
This, my friend, is not a responsibility to shirk. Sure, you may not be a photojournalist in this setting (even though you might feel like you’re in a war zone at times), but this is a big job. You are now the family documentarian. When little Max blows out his first birthday candle or your grandparents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, you’re expected to be there, ready to make sure each highlight is given its due.
In years to come, your images will be regarded as family treasures. This is no joke. I’ve seen family members argue over who gets to keep historical photographs of ancestors after members of the family pass on. Images of family make up the story of the people within them, and you are now a big part of archiving and presenting that story. Congratulations!
Let’s shift gears to outside the family environment. Think of those images that are considered iconic, such as Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl, Nick Ut’s image of Kim Phuc running from a cloud of napalm in Vietnam in 1972, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, and Ansel Adams’s beautiful depiction of the Snake River winding its way through the Teton mountains. These are historical remnants of days gone by, yet the stories that are conveyed within their frames are timeless.
You might say that some of these were just “right time, right place” types of images, but that negates the fact that all of these photographers were set on telling story in the first place. Their skill set, their vision, and the way they saw the world, their technique and style, and their passion for photographing their subject matter played just as large a role, if not larger, as any geographic location and time.
Whereas at the beginning of their careers some of them might have been technically and emotionally ready to photograph their nephew’s first track meet, at the time they took these iconic photos these photographers were in the hot seat, ready to do anything to document and create a visual story. They acknowledged their responsibilities as photo documentarians, just as we do each time we put the camera to our eye.
We are, in essence, story caregivers.
Through photography, we become visual stewards of life’s activities, places, individuals, and just about anything we can shoot. It’s easy to fall into the mentality that some things are not as important to photograph as others, such as a family holiday gathering versus an assignment for a regional feature-based magazine.
Places of worship in Spain are heavily populated with religious imagery, such as this ornate Jeronomite cathedral in Granada. This imagery was purposed in part to provide a visual depiction of the stories priests provided orally before the printing press and a more literate society emerged.
Canon 5D Mk II, 17mm, 1/30 sec, f/5, ISO 800
Underneath the surface, though, there’s still story, and that story is important to someone. To be honest, I’m not too sure how important a newspaper-run photograph of the stock exchange might be to a grandmother who has just picked up prints of her first granddaughter’s junior high graduation (no offense to those of you who photograph the stock exchange). As the camera-wielding, shutter-happy people that we are, story is all around us, continuously unfolding, and we each have a role in telling a small piece of it.
If I may get on a soapbox, I believe we photographers actually have a responsibility to tell story. This is not an ethics statement about what kind of story you should tell, but rather a perspective on what it means to be a photographer, at any level of the game. We are provided the means to create, and with that ability, to say something with imagery. Each and every one of us—whether we’re working in fashion, human rights, or photojournalism of other kinds, or whether we’re the uncle who always has a camera around his neck at family reunions and baseball games—is a part of a tradition of storytellers. We stitch together life, in a studio shoot for a new T-shirt line, on the front lines of a protest, or in the family backyard, for others to consume, appreciate, learn from, or enjoy.
To that extent, we have a responsibility as photographers. Those who embrace this responsibility ultimately become better storytellers. It sounds pretty heavy, but we’re attracted to creating story; otherwise the camera is just an electronic tool that we fiddle with periodically.
Some folks are obviously more addicted to storytelling than others. Some approach it in a more roundabout way yet create equally compelling images. No matter what level of enthusiasm for and dedication to the craft a photographer has, his photographs provide a depiction of life in a way that other forms of visual description, such as paintings, can never do. Much like orators, some photographers tell stories in more interesting and captivating ways than others. They have learned their craft and combined it with finding, visualizing, and creating story.
This is a continuous learning process, and good storytellers, no matter how they choose to do it, are always striving to tell a better story. Each story is different and not meant to be told the same way. Sure, individual stylistic characteristics may occur across stories, but each story deserves a fresh approach and a varied telling. Good storytellers know this, which means the story is in good hands. Caring hands.