One of the ways we can make our photographs connect more powerfully with an audience is to tell stories. Stories have been used by humans to create order from chaos, assign meaning to events, and to entertain, for thousands of years. We are, many have said, storytelling creatures. How we tell stories with our photographs is a much broader discussion than one blog post could cover, but here are four things you might want to consider as you seek to tell better stories.
All stories have characters, but the best stories have characters we can empathize with, characters we care about, or find interesting. Those characters don’t have to be human; they can be dogs, trees, even inanimate objects, but they do have to arrest our attention in some way. If we don’t care for one reason or another, the story won’t land. Characters that are doing something, or through which some action is implied, will be stronger than characters where nothing is happening - story always has action, or change.
A great background is like a great stage. It still needs characters if it’s going to tell a story (remember, not all photographs have to tell stories; story is only one way of connecting to an audience). A great setting is one that has some kind of connection to the characters. It gives us more information, provides visual clues about the story, or even provides juxtapositions or contrasts that draw our curiosity. If you find a great background, it’s worth waiting around until the characters appear.
Conflict or Contrast
Stories always have conflict of some kind. No conflict, no story. In the single still image this can be hard to achieve unless you’re photographing actual conflict. But conflict can appear in the contrasts of an image. Where dark meets light. Where happy emotion meets anger. Where girl meets boy or young meets old. It’s in the differences that we find the suggestion of story, and the stronger those differences the greater the potential of arousing the readers curiosity and imagination, which are the strongest tools we have as story tellers.
Stories are always about something. Know what your photograph is about, and you’ll be closer to knowing how to make the story stronger by including or excluding the right elements. For example, if your photograph is of your children, but you want it to be about play or childhood, you will choose certain backgrounds, light, perspectives, and moments to best tell that story. Wedding photographers do this well when the moment is so strong and the mood is so striking that the image becomes about more than one particular couple; it becomes about love and intimacy itself. The more human and more universal the theme, the larger the audience who will meaningfully experience the photograph. I might not resonate with a photograph of two of your friends getting married because I don’t know them, but with the right moment and emotion creating a sense of story about love, I can enjoy the image and never know the people represented.