A picture is worth a thousand words, and if you do it right, you just might be able to use a photograph to tell a story.
Storytelling in imagery dates as far back as the first drawings on cave walls. People have always wanted to record their own history and control the narrative by deciding which parts of the story to include, which to leave out, and which to exaggerate. As human beings, we create our identity by telling ourselves stories about who we are, the environment around us, and the people we know. Stories form the basis of the way we understand the world, so what more powerful way to use photography than to tell a story? Of course, even simple portraits have value as records and things of beauty, and they're part of the story of humanity when taken in context, but why not add additional weight, interest, and engagement to a photograph by purposefully using it to tell a story? Rather than being striking but having no depth beyond mere attractiveness, photographs that tell a story give the viewer questions to ask and ideas to engage with. It’s hard to scroll past or forget a photograph that captures our imaginations, and nothing seems to capture the human imagination like stories.
In order to tell a story, a photographer needs characters and and tension, which usually arises from conflict. The tension can be large or small, subtle or blatant, resolved or unresolved. It could be as simple as “what happened?” or as complex as “how does one deal with grief?” You can create tension by imagining the conflict and then narrowing it down the point at which your photograph takes place. And you can arrive at a point of conflict any way that suits you. Some photographers, like Kate Woodman, create a story by finding a fantastic location and imagining what might happen there and how the characters who inhabit that space would interact with each other or their environment. Others need a character first or a conflict or idea they’d like to explore. I have found that one of the easiest ways to come up with a story worth creating is to ask myself two questions. One, what do I care about enough to invest in? And two, “what if?” Whether it is a location, or a character, or anything else that intrigues you, if you ask yourself “what if” and then chase that line of thought, you will almost always come up with a story. What if dinosaurs evolved alongside humans and never went extinct? What if magic were real? What if I could take a portrait of a figure from Norse Mythology? What if?
But for any story to make sense, it needs characters and conflict that results in tension. Everything else about the image, from location to styling choices, light scenarios, and shooting angle, will flow from these two things. For this series, the story was a redemption arc for a wild west outlaw. What if an outlaw decided he wanted a new life and tried to get away from his old partner? The goal was to have every photograph be part of an overall story while still standing on its own by hinting at the larger narrative, like chapters in a book.
Here are some aspects of visual storytelling you can use to bring your photographic story to life, whether you tell the story in one image or many. If you break down each image in the series, you should be able to see how these techniques were used to tell the story.
For this series, the clothing worn by the characters is suitable to living a hard life in New Mexico during the late 1800s. If the characters had been wearing clothing more likely to be seen in New York City or Paris during the same time period, the story I wanted to tell would not have made as much sense and would have made the viewer ask different questions. Choose clothing or costumes that suit the characters purpose within the story, their job, their personality, etc. That will make it believable so the viewer can suspend disbelief. If the clothing or costume does not fit the story, character, and location, that will hinder the viewer from getting engaged in the story, because it will create a mental disconnect.
Makeup and Hair styling
The makeup for this series was also created in order to serve the story, with each character being grubby and sunburned, with dirty hands, chapped lips, stained teeth, windburned cheeks, and finally, with a gunshot wound. That clued us in about the characters' places in society, suited the story as it progressed, and supported the truthfulness of these characters in this location and the circumstances I'm trying to get the viewer to believe. If my female character had eyeshadow, a red lip, and a bit of contour, she wouldn’t have been believable as a widow trying to survive the harsh high desert with her young son in the late 1800s. Notice there is even a suntan mark on her ring finger?
Where the camera is positioned in relation to the subjects and location assists in telling the story. When the camera is looking down on a character, that character is placed in a position of weakness and relative inferiority to the viewer and potentially the other characters. When the camera is looking up at a character, that character is in a place of relative superiority or power. A tighter shot tends to be more intimate, while a wider shot tends to give an overall view of what is happening. Viewers may not consciously realize it’s happening, but it’s a surprisingly powerful technique.
This part of composition relates to where characters and elements are placed within a scene and is a powerful part of communicating the storyline. The character in the foreground might be the point of view character. The character in focus might be the main source of conflict. A character looking directly at the camera is tacitly engaging the viewer, while a character looking off camera is engaging in the storyline. The position of characters relative to one another or to important parts of the location gives the viewers hints about how the characters relate to each other and their environment. The larger something is in the frame, the more visual weight it has and the more attention it commands by making the rest of the objects in the frame look smaller.
Blocking and camera angle combine to create an almost subliminal influence on the viewer. For a fantastic example, watch this clip from the movie "A Little Princess." You’ll notice that in the beginning, Miss Minchin towers over Sarah as she scolds the girl. The angry woman becomes larger, and the camera slowly makes Sarah smaller. But when Sarah responds and asserts her power, the camera moves differently, so that Sarah rises in relation to the viewer, becoming a more powerful figure, and Miss Minchin seems to shrink. The viewer realizes that the emotional power dynamics of that relationship have changed.
Color palette also plays into telling a story. For this particular story, the colors are all earth tones, which makes sense not only for the time period, but keeps these characters very connected to the location. Colors can be a very subtle way to direct the viewer's eye and emotion. In The Matrix, the green toning hints at the unreality of the Matrix itself without becoming distracting. It’s subtle and insidious like the Matrix itself. But in Schindler's List, the little girl in the red coat is a flaming beacon of color in a sea of black and white that tells viewers something important is happening. Color creates visual cues you can use to manipulate the viewer. Colors like red indicate passion or power. Yellow could be used to show happiness. White, innocence. Blue, thoughtfulness or sadness. How you choose to employ color is a creative choice, but one that should always serve the story.
Lighting decisions help tell the story in a powerful way. How a subject’s face is lit gives the viewer clues to the mood, the tone, the location, and the character of the subject. If the subject is lit from below with high contrast, like in old monster movies, that will give the viewer a very different impression of the character than if they are lit with bright glowing light. Should your light be obvious and dramatic or look like it's merely part of the scenery? When telling a story, it is often more important to light the subject in accordance with the location and the story than it is to light them for the sake of flattering their features. A character who is meant to be scary or grotesque should not be lit to make them look like a handsome fellow. Light color, contrast, quality, and pattern also tell a story. If you consider what story you're trying to tell before you light your image, the photo will have a sense of purpose.
Location can be one of the most overt ways to support a storyline and can play a supporting role, assisting the viewer and understanding the story, or it may be a central character to a story that could happen nowhere else. You can use different areas of the location to assist in blocking and composition or create visual interest and a sense of place.
Props have been used in visual storytelling for a very, very long time. As an example, look at portraits of Queen Elizabeth the First. You might see her standing on top of the world, with a victorious armada behind her, with a crown placed just over one shoulder while she rests a hand upon the globe. Subtle, eh? But the inclusion of those things in the scene is no accident. The painters are giving the intended audience clues about the woman and her position and trying to endgender certain feelings or beliefs about the Queen in the viewer. What props you choose to include in your images will serve the same purpose. For this series, I used several props, like pistols, ropes, and drinking horns, but the most important prop to the story is a saddle bag full of money. Follow the saddle bag through the narrative, and you’ll have a good idea of what happens.
You can use a few of these techniques or all of them combined in order to tell a story through photography. The story does not have to be as blatant as the one I am telling here, but I am convinced that a photograph that tells a story will be more powerful, more affecting, and live longer in the memories of viewers than a photograph that is simply pretty but means nothing and asks nothing of its viewer.
That doesn't mean there is anything wrong was the photo taken simply for the sake of beauty or interest. We all enjoy looking at beautiful things, and sometimes, these lovely shots are exactly what we need to sell a product or illustrate a technique. But, I think if you practice these storytelling techniques with your images, you'll find your photographs will grow more visually appealing and more engaging.