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Visual Themes

Stories contain messages—messages that might convey a mood, perspective, or moral. Stories make us feel a certain way, give us another way to look at things, and inform, educate, and entertain us. More importantly, though, stories are about something. Whether spoken, broadcast, shown through photography or film, stories revolve around thematic narrative structures.

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Travel photography touches upon thematic topics such as culture, journey, and adventure. The blurred movement of the people and the car lights near the Giralda Tower in Seville, Spain, abstractly relate to these themes.

Canon 5D Mk II, 24mm, 2 sec., f/22, ISO 400

Remember when you first heard the phrase, “The moral of the story is...” The moral happened to be part of the theme: right and wrong, the strong versus the weak, good against evil. Such themes, among many more, are what story is constructed around.

While it seems elementary to think of these ideas in terms of Little Red Riding Hood, certain themes persist through time. Themes are as old as story itself; in essence, they are what story is really about. Love, beauty, faith, conflict, peace and unification, destruction, religion, progression, conservative and liberal, happy and sad—these are all themes upon which stories are built. Likewise, as many photographers and writers before me have emphasized, the more universal the themes—the more relative these thematic foundations are to the global population—the stronger the story.

If this all seems a bit too philosophical to you, consider the different types of photographers in the industry, who focus on sports, family, war, travel, lifestyle, and more. All of these photographers find themselves shooting in accordance to broad themes that identify their genre at the moment. These themes can be narrowed to several less abstract but just as encompassing ones. Travel photographers build upon themes related to the journey and adventure of life, where life will take you, and the excitement it might provide along the way. Humanitarian photographers thematically create images that inspire assistance and justice, hope and peace, as well as a unified global population. The wedding photographer is focused on shooting love, family, and the perpetuation of those two into the future.

These are fairly broad generalizations, and each genre has its own more specific thematic possibilities. But the point is, it is to our advantage when telling story, whether it’s through a photojournalism piece on the famine in Somalia or a wedding in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to determine or identify themes that will aid us in the storytelling process.

From abstract, theoretical meaning to detailed specificity, stories are developed across thematic structure. Themes give stories breath, keep them on track, and invite broad and niche audiences to consume and interpret our images. Remember what I said about the intentional fallacy? A photograph is a document, but it is a subjective document. Likewise, beyond what is simply in the frame, this document will mean something to someone. A rainbow appearing at the end of a torrential thunderstorm means something different to a variety of people. Photographers might look at a photograph of a rainbow and think, “Nice photograph.” Others might read hope, unity, strength, or a promise in the same image.

Take a deeper look into your own images. When we start thinking about story from a thematic point of view, we begin to notice what we are saying with our images. Photographers can shoot under a fairly specific theme and develop images that also say something more universal. For example, developing images thematically around city color might excite the notion of global culture in viewers. Good versus evil might be emphasized in images that were developed around the more pragmatic theme: venomous creatures of North America. You quickly become versed in the versatility of the images you have made, and you start to see where developing a theme for a particular shoot can provide you creative guidance and a new vision for what or whom is in front of your lens.

Fortunately, photographers are able to do more than devote ourselves to the sense of sight; we can capitalize on themes that contribute an additional dynamic to a story. The ability to tell visual stories that revolve around universal themes is significant. It puts the phrase “a picture’s worth a 1,000 words” into perspective, doesn’t it?

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After a storm, a rainbow is a sign to many. The implied meaning can fall under several thematic structures, religion being one. Christians believe that a rainbow represents a promise between God and the world’s population to never destroy the earth again with water.

Canon 5D Mk II, 17mm, 1/60 sec., f/3.2, ISO 400

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Bright, exuberant colors complement the signature white of Cordoba, Spain’s historic town center—an abstract way to suggest the excitement of travel.

Canon 5D Mk II, 50mm, 1/400 sec., f/8, ISO 100

Themes are always the foundation of stories. A magazine publication guided by a mission in wildlife conservation contains a variety of specific articles, and each speaks to its audience under a more broad theme: preservation of life and well-being. You might see this theme also addressed through stories and images in other publications dealing with human lifestyle, health, or even politics. Themes are theoretical, yet attractive. Stories, visual stories included, are tangible and representative. Without one, it’s hard to find the other.

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