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How to Improve Your Photography with Storytelling Images

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How many times have you had this interaction?

“This photo is beautiful!”

“Thanks!”

End of conversation.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Beautiful is a great, great compliment. However, if you’ve ever wanted to have a longer conversation with a viewer about one of your photographs, then creating images with stories behind them, or around your own personal stories, can be a very important approach to try.

My favorite photography tip has always been that you should photograph what you know and what you are most interested in. This passion and knowledge will help form your photographs and improve them. Instead of only sitting back and capturing what is given to you, go out searching for a way to capture something with which you have experience.

There are three types of stories to think about: ambiguous, personal, and documentary

Ambiguous stories

The ambiguous photograph is an image with a story that is unclear. It is a photo that makes you think, where you can imagine multiple stories and arcs based on a single image. This is a very important way to think about your work. If you can create a photo with an evolving story then as it lives on your wall or the wall of a viewer, the photograph will never get old. There will always be mystery and an evolving story based on the viewpoint of the observer. It’s hard to get sick of an image like that.

Bodega Flower Worker, 2012

Here’s an example of an ambiguous image for me. I walk by this flower stand outside of a bodega every day. I’ve always been curious about the lives of the people that work at these places. I know that some of them are immigrants looking to make a tough living in a tough city. On one of my walks home one evening, I noticed this man stopped and stared at the flower with this pained and thoughtful look. I have absolutely no idea what is going on here, but it makes me imagine a very elaborate story around what he is thinking about based on a simple look.

Personal stories

The personal story is to capture something that has happened to you. You can do this through multiple images or try to capture it within a single image. If you have a photo blog this is a great way to spice it up from just a solid stream of photographs with no commentary. When you put it on your wall, the next time someone complements you on how it looks, you can also tell the story behind the image. It’s good to create beautiful images for the sake of beauty, but it can also be fun to include images with stories. There is a place for both on your wall or on your blog.

Here is a recent example taken straight from my own blog to give you some inspiration. It is a single image that brought up a fun memory from my youth.

Canal Street, New York

Canal Street, New York

“Louis Vuitton? Rolex? Rolex?

These are the women on Canal Street in New York who sell fake handbags. I remember my first experience on Canal Street, the home of fake handbags. This must have been freshman or sophomore year in high school. My friend wanted to go to Canal Street to get a fake ID, so four of us took the subway down.

We were walking down the street when someone walked by whispering, ‘Fake IDs, Fake IDs?’ I mean… he picked us out pretty quickly, we must have been perfect targets. So my friend says, ‘Yeah,’ and he takes us into a Chinese restaurant. ‘This is just a front for some illegal operations’ he tells us. I was kind of nervous, but the fact that I was a passive observer with a couple other people made me just sit back and not pay too much attention to what was going on. I already had an ID.  I’ll tell the full story here one day, but making fake IDs is how I got into photography. I downloaded a very early copy of photoshop to alter a photo of an ID and fell in love with it. The rest was history.

The man sat us down at two separate tables with two of us at each table. It was here I probably should have realized something was going on. He clearly did that because the four of us together would have realized something was up.

The two guys who were getting IDs sat at the other table and I overheard the man telling them that he had to go around the back to tell them we were here and to not move or say anything. He was purposely trying to make us nervous about everything.

So he walks out. After a couple minutes we went over to their table. ‘What did he say?’ – ‘Oh, he’s coming back soon. He just had to take our money in first to make sure it’s not counterfeit.’

‘Um… I don’t think he’s coming back.'”

Louis Vuitton, Canal Street

Louis Vuitton, Canal Street

Finally, there is the documentary photograph

You can do this anywhere, but unless you are a professional documentary photographer, it will usually be more practical to create stories where you live and where you are familiar. Capture photographic stories in your community. You can even do this based on a story taken from your own life. The final manifestation of this is creating a full documentary project, but if you’ve never tried anything like this, then start smaller and create single images or small groups of images.

The image at the top of this article, and the following nine, are based on a project that I’ve been working on documenting the gentrification and overall change in my community, the East Village and Lower East Side neighborhoods of New York City. For a somewhat brief version of the story, the neighborhood was once a center of immigrant life in New York, with polish, Ukrainian, Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican, and people from many other countries around the world. The neighborhood was hit extremely hard during the drug epidemic in New York in the ’80s and it became the place in Manhattan to purchase drugs. People would line up down the block to purchase heroin from drug dealers who often dropped the drugs down in cans. Building owners abandoned their buildings for squatters to take over, and some even burned their buildings down for the insurance money.

Because of all of this, the neighborhood was the cheapest place to live in the city. Musicians, artists, creatives, and many different types of people moving to New York, would go to the East Village because it was cheap and they would be able to pay the rent working a few odd jobs, spending the rest of their time on their art or whatever they wanted. The neighborhood became the birthplace of Punk Rock.

It’s a wonderful neighborhood, the one in which my grandfather and mother grew up, but more recently it has become the trendiest area of the city. Developers have attacked the neighborhood, taking over buildings and illegally strong-arming out rent-controlled and rent-stabilized tenants, many of whom had lived there for 40 or more years. Neighborhood shops, many of which have been around for decades, are disappearing rapidly being replaced by chains. The night is filled with drunk people yelling and peeing on stoops.

The story is much longer than that, but here are just a couple of images from the project that I feel gives a sense of what is happening to the neighborhood.

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Razed Building, East Village, 2012.

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So grab a pad and brainstorm some ideas. Share any images you have taken with a good story behind them. Let’s see your stories.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the unique personalities and stories of the city. He is the author of the e-book, "The Essentials of Street Photography" and runs photo tours of New York. To view his work or connect, visit his website.

  • Ajay Panigrahi

    During my Amsterdam visit

  • Ajay Panigrahi

    Please comment here whatever you are thinking about this pic

  • Nalanti Goosen

    I think these images both tell a story

  • What the woman is looking at? A nice guy, a shoe store, a fight between a couple or flashy ad? Up to you 🙂

  • Guest

    A homeless guy, searching for bottles in New York.

  • allen

    “there’ s a pesky photographer behind me” 🙂

  • Ranjith

    A flower vendor: Tiredness and anticipation in her eyes

  • Paul Harris

    Great shots. I grew up in Manhattan and then Westchester, so I know the area well from the 80’s. Now I live in DC and the same thing is happening here. It what I call homogenization. Soon the entire country will have lost its diversity of people and neighborhoods.

  • Yeah it’s a really tough thing to see Paul. Hopefully it’s not a longterm phase but I fear that it is.

  • Paul Harris

    Sorry James. It is forever. Soon there will be single chains supplying everything. Marriott will supply lodging, Disney entertainment and TGIF our food.
    Still your images are capturing something important. Giving others a glimpse into the neighborhood fabric.
    I’ve been working on the 150th civil war events down here. There’s lots of conversations in the camps about the changes in America just in the past 50 years.

    http://Www.oakhillstudio.org

  • GayanR

    any thoughts?

  • GayanR

    This was captured using 50mm prime using available available light

  • What could be the story behind ?

  • any story for this picture ?

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