Storytelling is an essential part of society and shapes the way we experience everything from the obvious mass media in cinema, books, music and advertising, to more subtle things like the way a restaurant might present its menu, or the way a lawyer may present a case.
Stories shape us from childhood and become what we rely on to define ourselves through adulthood. Conveying an effective narrative can be the difference between laughter or tears which stay with you forever, and something forgettable as soon as it’s been completed.
The process of telling stories is as central to my practice as the process of raising my camera to my eye and pressing the shutter. I don’t like work that exists in isolation, instead concentrating on ideas that can be sewn together into a tapestry which can be enjoyed as one complete piece. I think this can quite often be a very opposing way of doing things to the digital driven workflow which prioritises speed over depth, transient illustrations to ideas rather than a solid foundation subject to valid critique and commentary.
Telling a story in detail means an investment of time beyond what would only result in a single chapter, which takes place over a few hours, or days, or even weeks. Some teach that a minimum of four weeks is required just for the research and development of the direction of a project, and I’m inclined to agree. A few weeks is enough to start to soak in more than just the superficial aesthetic of what a location or situation may have to offer.
Telling a long term story means being present for the changes and subtleties that can only be noticed by someone who has already put the initial work into covering the superficial elements, after which they are almost forced to look deeper and deeper beneath the surface. Where a short term envisioned photographer may for example photograph a still life of a pebble on a beach a long term storyteller will stay with that rock as it its eroded into sand, and then may track it back to the cliff or quarry it may have originally come from.
Going about such a documentation is a very involved process, one I think many would benefit from in order to offer intention and direction to their workflow. The motivation to fill out gaps in stories I am working on is a much stronger force than any drive I may have felt with my more general street work, which I now consider to be a kind of “B-Roll” which offers context to the grounded pivotal images around which the rest of the project orbits.
The first step is possibly the hardest and requires the most ambiguous and personal connotations: the idea itself. It is hard to offer advice on how to find an idea to turn into a story because if I tell people aspects of how I do it they tend to follow those as guidelines rather than figuring it out for themselves. I suggest starting locally when practicing; find interesting aspects of your own life or the lives around you and apply yourself to those. Beyond this, if you exist within subcultures in media, music, religion, food, painting, any lifestyle involving something that you are already spending time on.
Photograph things that are already interesting and important to you and you will cultivate the ability to apply that practice outwards into more intricate and distinct stories. I’ve said before that close to no (recent) parent needs to be told what to photograph, their dedication is already their child and they will naturally involve a camera in that devotion if they are a practitioner. It is more simple than most people think, and this can present illusions to those who want something with more perceived layers or substance. Those are already there, it just takes investigation and trial and error in order to find an angle that flows into a narrative.
Narrative implies progression or change. Take that newborn child I used as an example, and assume that the first series of photographs are portraits — the cliche sleeping, curled up fist, then bright-eyed looking into the lens, macro of tiny feet — nothing groundbreaking, all treasured memories, but no real narrative just on their own. Instead, these establish the “who” of the piece, the main character we will be following. The other narrative W’s are: What, When, Where, and Why which can all be incorporated and implemented in different ways depending on the story we want to tell.
Let’s say that we want to tell a story about this child making their first friend, and the nature of the way that friendship is experienced by a very young person. In a single frame, a street photographer might capture a hug or hands being held, toys being shared, but this doesn’t really reveal anything beneath the surface.
We’ve started with the child as a newborn, photographed entirely alone — so now those establishing portraits in this context have a sense of loneliness and absence, as even if the parent is present we do not have the friendship that this project is now about. This means that photographs of the child playing alone with their first toys, a cycle of this child’s day from wake to sleep, the environment this child is developing in, and then starting to hint towards something lacking in the environment serve to cover the what, when, where, and why of this project.
The next images would be the child meeting others in nursery and some of those interactions, followed by moments of actual friendships forming. Here those previously superficial street photographs of toys being shared, hugs, eye contact and anything else have new meaning, we see them occur in our main character for the first time and can learn from that, just as we can learn from the progression of wherever this story goes next.
This is quite a long and convoluted hypothetical situation, but hopefully relatable and simple enough that you can see how fairly standard, obvious photographs can be presented in the boundaries of a clear narrative, which have a character arc across a beginning, middle, and end, and a very straightforward development of who, what, when, where, and why in a way that can actually reveal new information to the eventual reader.
Character arcs and story arcs are important threads to follow, and I think are best when not guided by the photographer — the photographer must be present for them, but should not interfere unless they are happy with their involvement being part of that record. Transparency here is key, and a reason why I accompany my photographs with at least a broad strokes of write-up in a publication.
Long term stories naturally take time to tell, and film is perfectly suited for this long haul approach. I know people who have worked on ten-year projects starting in the digital age, where the first few images are on slide film, then early CMOS Nikon bodies, then from the Fujifilm X lineup, and currently being worked on with Sony FE cameras. I am sure that this will eventually result in a superb project, but the variations are enough to put me off – if I had started ten years ago I would almost definitely be working with the same emulsions today as I would have then; and I take this into account with my contemporary projects which are almost all shot on ILFORD 35mm black and white films, with some 120 and slide work when the situation absolutely demands it.
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In this way, my images made today will have a consistency with the images I make ten years from now, and won’t take the audience out of the project into questions about gear and progression. My recent publications from Bulgaria and D.C. both use images that were made very consistently, including the development process so they share a lot in common – they only appear different side by side because of the type of paper they’ve been printed onto.
Photographing the long game sometimes means making photographs that aren’t especially useful presently, but which I know will be an appropriate pair with something I intend to produce later on, or to become part of a sequence that is still in progress. I have to consider the possible directions for a project and account for work I can imagine but have not yet made, usually involving traditional elements which will bind together other key moments. It is here that Street Photography can fill in some suitable B-Roll type contextual situations.
Examples of this would be aesthetic images, detailed close-ups, wider frames of slices of life, but also any interactions that may be relevant to a story told about people and life; so rituals, portraits of interesting characters, anything that may be relevant to the story threads I am exploring. Keeping myself searching for these sets me up with a good mentality to tie these things I notice into other things I notice, keeping me on that path wherever I happen to be.
A recent example of this kind of image is this photograph (above) I took while waiting at a bus stop, of a feather caught in the moss of a tree. It was held in place securely despite the wind and I liked the interaction between the juxtaposed lightness and “weakness” associated with the feather with the “strength” of the tree. It doesn’t tell much of a story in itself but I can use it to characterise a place or person in order to demonstrate and symbolise something that may not be apparent from a surface level rendition of just what that person or place looks like, this image in sequence would allow you to project a little deeper.
It is a small moment of fragility and serendipity but without real meaning until I incorporate it in sequence — and of course, it will have to make sense to the story, it may be something set in London and has its place there, or to do with someone who is already characterised in some way similar to draw that connection. I’m constantly searching for these connections in every moment I photograph freshly, but also seeking back in my archive to see if there is a new way I can look at historic work so that I can incorporate those ideas into things I look for while photographing, things I try or hope to see, new situations I could anticipate. In this way I can drive myself harder based on that potential, knowing that I already have part of the puzzle piece and that I can move closer to having a more complete picture.
Knowledge of my archive is important, as it means I will see these reflections and complementary images, but it is also important to have a good working knowledge of myself and what I am bringing to the encoding of these images. I have to be very specific in the way I present work so that it is my interpretation and no one else’s — not as important in some genres but for telling a story based in factual occurrence it can be risky leaving things open to too much interpretation.
For example, a photograph of a solitary figure against the backdrop of an urban landscape can imply many things; an audience could project isolation as much as they could independence and freedom: it’s whatever they bring with them to the picture, not necessarily what the picture brings to them. As I said some genres allow room for interpretation and projection, but for a story told as experienced it is the intent of the artist that much dominate the meaning, and overshadow any potential interpretations.
As such, if I want to interpret a scene to present the idea of a looming, menacing situation then that cannot be left to chance, I must compose very specifically; I wouldn’t use a wide-angle to diminish, I’d use a mid to emphasise, I’d make sure that the frame was filled entirely to present scale, and to allow a literal towering-over of the landscape.
Whether or not that is your interpretation of the image is still down to what you bring to it, but the pieces are in place to make sure that I can stand by my own process. The best way to avoid ambiguity is to work outside of the confines of a single frame and to combine images in sequence, which allows a flow and rhythm and for the story to become something greater than the sum of its parts.
Presenting work as a story doesn’t necessarily need to hit all of the points in the way I’ve outlined here, but I think it’s best to have those pieces to work with in the first place so that cutting is from work that had a place at some point rather than from nonexistent archives, making do with what was shot rather than potentially regretting what wasn’t.
This article has been specific to my process of Documentary Photography: I photograph with story in mind, then curate, print, arrange, present, and publish with story in mind as well. It’s entirely possible to apply these ideas to more abstract presentations and directions of work, like still life where you would make images of individual one-off things but discover the narrative through-line during curation and then sequence it as a story that involves all of the above without ever showing a person or any kind of real progression – entirely in the subtext of the images.
There are so many ways to achieve this, to produce so many different kinds of project. They don’t all need to be about withholding and revealing information, they can educate directly, they can transport you to a mind-scape or a real place, or teach you a new skill. My process for working on a project is just one way of doing one thing, and shouldn’t be a limitation to anyone who wants to try something different. There is never a specifically correct way to produce work, but I’m happy with the way I’ve been able to process ideas through photography over the last few years, and will be continuing for as long as it can be sustained, hopefully seeing as many stories through to the end as possible.
Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts!
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