The year was 1975. A friend and I had driven to upper New York State to see several friends of ours who were working as camp counselors that summer. They were in between sessions and had gotten the approval of the camp director for us to come and visit for a week end. The first evening of our visit found us sitting in the lounge of the dining hall after dinner and duties were done to hear a reading from The Chronicles of Narnia. Now, one would not think of this as an activity college students would want to take part in (especially on a weekend!), but when a Master Storyteller reads a story- people of all ages will stop and listen! The director’s wife was a story teller of that caliber and she read the book as if we were there in Narnia right along with the main characters. We moved through the story and lived the adventure just as those characters did all through the power of her words. It was magical.
Most people associate a story with the written word. But is that the only way you can tell a story? Could a picture tell a story too? The answer of course is yes. In fact it could be argued that some of the best pictures are those that not only evoke a strong emotional response from the viewer but ones which also contain a narrative about the subject that enables the viewer to “read the story” as they look at the picture. Battle-weary soldiers lift a tattered flag above their heads. A strong leader is caught in a quiet moment pondering the gravity of the times. A parent and a child gaze in wonder at a caterpillar crawling on the ground. Pictures most definitely tell “a story” when there are people involved. But not every picture has a human element. In those cases the story of a picture does not always start with “Once upon a time” as its opening dialogue. It may not end with “And they lived happily ever after” either. But it does capture a scene, a subject, or even an idea with visual elements such as line, shape, texture or color which pulls the story together and invites the viewer to be a part of it.
It is harder to see “the story” in an abstract shot, but every photo bears the same elements of a good story: a main character or an ensemble of them (even if that character is an inanimate object, a pattern or colors splashed across the image), suspense, humor, surprise or some form of drama (like stormy clouds or clashing colors) and resolve (a place where the eyes rest or leave the picture plane). The pictures which bear a human element are obviously the easiest to see stories in. Good pictorial story tellers use the body language, gestures, and expressions of people in the picture to tell the viewer what’s going on and capture moments which make the story come alive. It is critical though for the photographer to show an interest in the subject otherwise the people looking at your photograph will be disinterested in it as well. That is to say, the viewer must see WHY we took the picture and even more so when the human element is not present. Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring noted in Extraordinary Everyday Photography, “If you’re caught up in your own world when you go out the door, you’ll miss many good photo opportunities. Get outside of yourself, become a life watcher, and celebrate the moments that make life the precious experience it is”. “Life Watching” is all about observing “the stories” that are happening around you in the world of photography- and especially when those stories go beyond the human realm. Did you see that flower, that building, those colors, that rock? Our eyes direct us to stories every day. Our cameras help us tell it.
But to tell stories you must first find them. You must go out and be a part of life or observe life where you are in that moment. The human stories always happen wherever there is a hub of activity: markets, festivals, carnivals, parades, on the street, in the home, wherever life is being lived. The non-human stories may not be as obvious but they too are waiting to be told. You might be a photographer who is not be interested in photographing people, but the same ability to capture a moment and tell a story can be applied to photographing wildlife and birds. Stories can also be told through the emotions brought out by a beautiful vista, the contrast of light and shadow, the nostalgia of a vintage telephone, the grandeur of a cathedral, or the imagination conjured up by an abstract image in the same way we see shapes in the clouds. Finding the story is dependent on your willingness to SEE; to keep your eyes open and aware of what is taking place in your surroundings- human or otherwise. Storytellers are “seers” who then tell others about what they’ve seen. Photographers see stories too, and when we do, we are compelled to tell it. We may not hold a pen to paper, a book in our hands, or a microphone to our mouths but we tell stories with each click of the shutter. What stories will you see today? How will your camera help you to tell them?
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