I've been thinking a lot lately about what I want to achieve through my photography. Maybe achieve isn't exactly the best word, but I suppose I've been thinking about something to shoot for, or a guiding principle to inform my work.
I've been thinking about how to best distill my vision as a photographer, artist, and creative into a succinct concept. The more thought I put into the topic, the more it evaded me. Every time I felt I was narrowing in on the perfect turn of phrase to describe what I was aiming to achieve, it would juke at the last moment, leaving me grasping at air.
This process played itself over many times, as soon as I caught a glimpse of my quarry, it would vanish without a trace.
Until a couple of weeks ago when it came to me in a flash. And as is almost always the case, the answer to my question was so simple that I had looked it over a hundred times, each time recognizing it, before discarding the idea in search of something more profound.
The answer? The core of my creative vision?
“How did it take you that long?” you'll ask, “Isn't that obvious?”
And you'd be right, it is obvious. The idea that our photos should tell a story is something you'd hear on the first day of Photography 101, the first thing from the mouth of every great photographer who ever snapped the shutter, and often referenced by any photographer who wants to appear to know what he or she is doing.
And I think that's exactly the problem.
The idea that storytelling is integral to great photography has been so ingrained into photography lore, that it's become cliche, a platitude recited too often to actually provoke any thought or reflection on what it means to tell a story through a static, two dimensional image.
I consider myself a decent photographer - certainly I have plenty of room to improve, but I have a firm foundation of knowledge beneath me – and I've been aware of the concept of storytelling through photography since I picked up my first camera. Probably before I picked up my first camera. Yet when I look at my development as a photographer, I can think of all the times I went shooting, honing my exposure, focusing, depth of field and compositional talents. I can't think of a time however where I intentionally went out shooting with the goal of ensuring my images were steeped in story, one that would pull in the viewer even with no knowledge of the setting or circumstances.
As a result, for much of my photographic history, I've been creating great, sometimes even stunning (if I say so myself) images, but while many of them are perhaps visually intriguing and capture a story for me, I have doubts as to whether the images would convey a story to someone who didn't experience the place, or the moment as I did.
Following this discovery, I've been going back and reassessing a lot of the images which I once prized most highly, and realizing that in my evaluation of them I had been missing a critical element on which to judge them.
Does this image convey a story to someone other than myself?
There are certainly photos that do tell a story, but I've realized now that many of these were either luck, or the story was so obvious that it was hitting me over the head, and I would have been a complete fool to miss it (obviously I feel great that I caught these ones at least).
Through viewing just a sampling of the thousands of new images that appear online every day, I suspect that I am not the only photographer who struggles with the difficulties of working a tangible story into my photos. I see so many incredible, visually stunning images uploaded every day, and I am wowed. These photos often make me jealous of the skill of the photographer, curious about the editing techniques, and spur me to work harder. Despite the appeal of these images however, I often find myself wanting something more, a connection deeper than the initial visual rush.
For the record, I love incredible images of all kinds, and recognize that every genre has it's place. I suppose I just feel that so many of us have incredible talent as photographers, but have never learned how to truly find, recognize, and convey a story, and thus leaving so much potential impact on the table.
What more could our photographs convey if we added a mastery of storytelling to our already impressive set of skills? If we could pull at the viewers heart strings with every image we released? I like to think that a single photographer can change the world through his or her images, I also believe that this cannot be accomplished without fusing a bond between the viewer and your subject.
Through a story.
In my thinking about what it means to be a photographer, a storyteller, an artist, I realized that one of the faults in my thinking from the beginning was in viewing myself as a photographer, and from that mental space attempted to create the most engaging images possible. I've since had to adjust my image of myself to something broader. I now think of myself as a storyteller, specifically a storyteller who uses a camera as a primary means of conveying a narrative. I know I have a long way to go if I ever want to master the art (and I do), and yet, this new vision of myself, and my path is absolutely invigorating, and I can't wait to see where the road takes me.
What are your thoughts on the current state of storytelling in photography? Am I the only one who glossed over the storytelling aspect of the craft, dismissing it as a platitude? Who are some of the photographers you look up to who tell a story with each and every image? Keep the discussion going in the comments section, I'd love to hear from you.
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