Chasing the Story via Photography

The Problem: Not sure where to start when it comes to story photography.

Mom and Dad gave me my first camera when I was eight. Immediately, all of my allowance went to buying film and having it developed. But, my budget was small, forcing me to be sure that my approach was cost effective—at least from an eight year-old's point of view. Which meant that the bulk of my pictures were planned and posed. It wasn't until my first digital camera that I felt the freedom to photograph subjects that caught my attention in the moment. And when I got my first phone wrapped in bacon...er, I mean with a camera, photographing everything caught my attention became a 24/7 reality.

Over time, I realized this freedom made it a lot easier to photograph moments that unfold between friends, a parent and their child, siblings, people meeting for the first time, and so on. There's a vulnerability and truth that a candid photograph seems well-suited to reveal. In them, you can see the heart of relationships and story.

Then, my niece's and sister's weddings—or, rather, studying wedding photography to make myself a better photographer for them—made me realize that predictable moments rich with candid opportunities can be overlooked without a plan. After all, a wedding unfolds in a predictable way. It has a plot that's familiar. However, it's easy to miss or interfere with the sub-plots if you don't plan for them.

Needless to say, all of these experiences helped me discover a starting point when it comes to story photography.

A Solution: Plan for and find stories as you go.

The following isn't really a step-by-step process for story photography, it's more of a map with options to send you in the right direction as you pursue your own storytelling intentions.

Plan for Certain Images

If I have an idea of the story, I’ll think of the standard/iconic ways to photograph the story. Then, I’ll brainstorm other ways to illustrate the story. Sometimes, I’ll take props to help give the story a bit of structure. Once I took an old typewriter, our Radio-Flyer wagon, and some other items to a park where my sister and I photographed a set of twins whose parents are writers.  Some of my favorite photographs are of the twins (just under a year) exploring the typewriter.  Their expressions were priceless and the typewriter connected them to their parents in a fun way.

Be Open to Surprises

During our session with the twins, their parents put them into a cute (large) straw basket. The twins hated it and cried. Their parents picked up the basket and walked towards my sister. She captured the crying and I noticed the “back story” and a surprise! From the back side, I was given a sense of the whole; the unity of their family—Mom and Dad clutching a basket holding their amazing daughters; all of them together and united. The basket became symbolic of family.

In a brief and unexpected moment, a telling photograph arrived along with a story that you just can’t stage.

Be in the Moment

In addition to planned photographs (and surprises), I like to focus on capturing the everyday moments and moments in-between.  For example, I look for those moments after a pose when my subject’s focus shifts from my camera to something that really interests them. These moments reveal so much and seem so rich with truth.  These are my favorite sorts of photographs; these moments in-between poses. Likewise, I may jot down some notes about my own thoughts and feelings—just so I can remember how it felt within a particular moment.

Analyze and Adjust

Don’t study your project until a headache forms, but do take a quick look at the collecting photos and notes from the project. Then, consider the story as a whole and how to tell it.

  • Look for themes forming, make note of this, and think of ways to develop these themes further.
  • Think of ways to tell the story. For example, would black-and-white convey some truth of the moment better than color? If so, what makes for a great black-and-white photograph (e.g., shape, texture, contrast, etc.)?
  • Consider how the story will be shared: Album, framed photographs, slide show, Instagram? Then, figure out how support that (e.g., frame a square photograph for Instagram).
  • Identify a key word that sums it all up. For a week-in-the life project I did a few years back, the word “glimpse” kept coming to mind. This helped guide my photography and note-taking efforts for that project.

And, Then?

Once the images and words have been collected and the photography sessions are over, it's time move on to designing and creating an artifact of some sort to hang on to the experiences, relationships, and stories captured by my camera. In the case of my week-in-the-life project, I created a mini book. Since the overriding concept was the word glimpse, I used a see-through acrylic for the covers and printed some of my photographs on transparencies.

So, how about you? What paths do you take when photographing stories?

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