Photographers Talk Up 'Story' Like It's God - It's Not

I roll my eyes these days when I hear photographers talking about story. Here's why.


This is my third blog on photographers prattling on about story - and likely not my last.


You can read my previous posts here: Why I Never Talk About 'Story' In My Street Photography Photographer: You're Likely Not A Storyteller - Nor A Photographer

I'm going to get to the crutch of the matter in this one and talk strictly about the haphazard use of the word, story. To do this, I'm going to show examples of statements and comments I commonly hear other photographers say or write about.


Here's a very concise list, of which there are numerous variations:


I like photos that tell a story.

A good portrait tells a story.

Photographers are storytellers, or should be storytellers.

A good picture should always tell a story.

It depends on the story.

What story do you want to tell?

Besides a gross overuse of the word, the biggest problem I see in the photography community is that photographers throw the word around like it's God. It's not to be questioned, only understood. There are no mysterious at all, nothing beautiful and sacred about photography - if story isn't involved.


In my humble opinion, "the story" and "storytelling" is nothing short of unimaginative and unintelligent wordplay. It's the kind of rubbish a parrot would learn if it was stuck in a cage having to listen to self-important photographers talk about their single-shot images like they're Hemingway novels.


And I feel I have to make this point yet again: single images do not tell stories.


Strangely enough, 99.9% of the photographers talking about story are those who aren't photojournalists, who have never shot a photo series, or aren't even aware that it is possible to tell a story visually.


Otherwise, and as I've mentioned before, you're just writing a caption. Why? Because without your caption (call it a story if you like), nobody would know what the hell is going on in your image without vital context being provided. The single image alone doesn't suffice because it lacks information - it lacks a story.


Arguably, one of the most important questions to answer in a caption or story is, why? The why of a single image usually can't be determined just by looking at it. Unless, naturally, you provide what? - you guessed it - a caption.


Take the image above, for example. What's the story? If single images tell a story, what's the story?


This is also an important distinction I'd like to clarify. If you want to guess the story, or make up your own shit about an image, that's fine. I'm not barking up anyone's tree over this trivial joy. But I do take issue with photographers who think that a single issue tells a story in and of itself.


So once again, what is the story in my image? This is my challenge to you. If single images tell a story, a real story and not made-up, fanciful bullshit, what's the real story in my image?


You can't do it. That's the real story here.


But it would help you if I provided a simple caption: "I was walking next to a farm road when I saw a little boy approaching me. I took his picture. His mother comes along and wants her child to pose for me. He won't smile (which I didn't want him to do as I wanted an unposed shot). When she kept insisting that he smile, the boy started to cry."


That's my caption. You could say it's a story, and you would be correct. There is a logical beginning, middle, and an end, even if the ending isn't exactly a happy one for the boy. But it's a caption. If you write about an image or even a sequence of images, you're providing captions.


If you want to become a storyteller at that point, fine. I have no issues with photographers providing long captions or writing stories about their experiences in taking single-image shots. This was never the source of my ire. I love to tell stories too. But I don't claim to be some sort of wizard who conjures up single images that tell stories - without my expressed, written intervention.

My response to those who believe that the only good photos are those which tell stories


[This is intended to those who preach what photography should be, not to those who merely express vague preferences.]


What a joyless, visually barren, and uninspiring world you relegate an entire art form to exist within. Photography is a visual art, an expression of beauty, ugliness, shape, form, light, darkness, emotion, feeling, anger, sorrow, happiness, and a million other traits. Even motion. What an image is - is not an expression of story. Story is an idea; it's not visually possible.


When you talk about story, you most likely mean narrative. When you prattle on about storytelling, you most likely mean captioning. But what you're not talking about, oddly enough, is photography.


Not only is your understanding of the function of a single image seriously flawed (if you believe single images actually and truly tell a story), your insistence on spreading such views is no better than that of a zealot's. Not a compliment.

My argument has always been in the form of a question, as it pertains to this annoyance of mine: what's wrong with being just a photographer, anyway? Isn't it enough? On an anthropological and possibly an evolutionary note, we're all storytellers by nature. Name any field in the arts - most of us are storytellers by default setting. Outside of our professions and passions, we're natural-born storytellers too. Granted, some of us better than others, a few of us are masters, and fewer still the legendary Shakespeares and Hemingways of our time.


Yes. We're all storytellers.


But not all of us are photographers.

Let's turn the tables on this entire thing for a moment to really sell you on my point if you remain unconvinced after this and two previous blogs on the same subject. It's like if your favorite writer came out and said, "I take pictures."


It's like if Kurt Vonnegut had prefaced Slaughterhouse Five with the opening words, "I'm a photographer."


No one would give a shit.


So it goes.


















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