This image is from David duChemin's eBook, The Photographic Story: How to Use Storytelling to Make More Powerful Photographs, a guide to using the elements of storytelling to make more powerful photographs. We asked David to walk us through the making of one photograph from the book to better understand his thoughts behind the how and the why of making the image.
This tea house/coffee shop in Istanbul is a popular, visually rich place with a long history. The moment I saw it I wanted to come back and spend long hours watching the characters coming and going. I knew I had found a place with an abundance of two of the most important elements of story: setting and character. So when the chance came to get together with a friend, we met here, and—like the men in this photograph—each ordered a water pipe and the first of many glasses of tea. I didn’t make photographs. I watched. I drank tea. I smoked.
The first task of the photographer has nothing to do with the camera. It’s to be present. To experience something. To be receptive and observant. You don’t make stories, you wait for them. So I watched. I had chosen a spot where I felt I had the best view of the people, some workable light, and some visual interest. When these two gentlemen sat down I put my camera on my lap and framed them, as I had with others before, and waited to see what would happen. What drew me to them was the difference between them—perhaps they were father and son—and in my mind, that generational difference introduced the possibility of story. But there was no action. They sat there smoking, the younger man fiddling with his phone, neither of them really talking. This wasn’t a story; it was two men looking bored. There was no real contrast, nothing to indicate a challenge or struggle, no action about to take place, no change about to happen. So I drank more tea.
What makes this image for me is the gesture. It’s the introduction of a visible relationship between the two people as the older man reaches out to connect with the younger man who seems to have checked out. What was in that gesture? What did he say? I’m not sure, but there are several directions it takes your imagination. That ambiguity is another element of story; providing just enough visual cues to give us a head start and then letting us fill in the blanks on our own. Is he saying, "Son, put the phone down, I want to talk?” I don’t know. In my mind, this story is about the longing to connect. There’s a tenderness there. There’s an effort being made. Will the older man break through? Will the son just ignore him? Hovering in the air with those questions is where we find the story of this image and it’s all in the gesture, the touch that lasted a minute and then was gone.
We talk so much about gear and technique, and that craft matters. But this image and the story it tells is a result of patience, timing, and composition, not shutter speeds and apertures. All great stories owe more to the inner workings of the human behind the camera than the inner workings of the camera itself. I love what Robert Frank said: “There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” There will never be a camera with a button that recognizes the humanity of the moment; that’s our job.
Compositionally, I didn’t have many choices in this scene. I wanted to include the repeating elements of the pots and pans and the water pipes. My point of view (POV) was low, allowing the reader of the photograph a straight-on view that avoids looking down on them and also keeps most of the people behind the men out of the frame. The visually-heavy pots and pans provide balance to the men and keep the frame much more dynamic than had I just tightened up with a longer focal length.
My final choice was in choosing a high contrast black and white treatment with a little grain. The older gentleman’s sweater was a bold red and pulled the eye much more towards him than to the heart of the image, which is the intimate relationship between the men, and the challenge to that relationship: the phone and the younger man’s distraction. The lack of colour focuses the story much more clearly.
If you’re interested in the idea of exploring storytelling to make stronger photographs, check out The Photographic Story: How to Use Storytelling to Make More Powerful Photographs, an eBook plus a 40-minute companion video.
David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com.