The Magic of Storytelling: A Rhetoric for Beginners - Digital Photography School

The Magic of Storytelling: A Rhetoric for Beginners

By Wesley Wong

The following is a collection of thoughts regarding the concept of a ‘story telling’ image. Rather than an in-depth instructional tutorial, the following is more of a rhetoric that seeks to persuade and inspire you to develop your creativity and to start taking shots that matter; shots that communicate something meaningful to the viewer. Creativity is something that we all possess; it is inherent and doesn’t need to be learned in the same way as the technical side of photography. Even though you may initially lack technical and editing expertise, I encourage you to use what you already have, your creativity.

The advent of digital photography has revolutionized the way we do things bringing unparalleled convenience into our lives. Despite the benefits, the ‘digital revolution’ has resulted in people putting less thought into their shots. Nevertheless, it is clear that our drive to create meaningful and powerful images stands the test of time.

This leads to the question of: what is a powerful image? That will depend on who you ask. In my view, a powerful image is one that engages and stimulates our hearts and minds. The key to a powerful photograph lies in its ability to tell a ‘story’. A story can be anything from something as complex as a social commentary to something as simple as a feeling or an emotion. A storytelling image engages us by speaking to our hearts. It stimulates our inherent curiosity and stirs our creative juices. It leads us not only to question what the photographer is trying convey but to also explore our own unique interpretations.

A powerful image is a work of art, not science. As an art form, an image is open to the creativity of our imagination. An image ‘speaks’ to us and we ‘hear’ the story we want to hear. The story we choose to hear is determined by a variety of factors including our values, experiences, culture, society, individualism, and artistic outlook. Most importantly, it is our imagination that influences how we understand and interpret an image.

As photographers, we endeavor to communicate a certain story. Although we can carefully compose a scene, it is clear that we lack full control over others’ interpretation of our work. The Arts encourage creative interpretation unlike science which is governed by rigid rules that lead us to absolute truth. When it comes to The Arts, it can be said that there is no right or wrong interpretation; however, it is clear that interpretation must be reconciled with reason. As such, it can be said that creative freedom is constrained somewhat by a degree of logic and reason. We live in the real world where creative freedom must coexist with rationality.

Arguably, storytelling is the easiest way to create a powerful image. Creativity is an inherent part of what it means to be human. As such, our story telling ability occurs naturally without rhyme or reason. In contrast, perfecting the technical aspects of photography takes significant time and requires learned understanding. As photographers, it is important for us to understand and master the technical, compositional, and post production aspects of photography. When used correctly, these aspects will bring out the story more effectively. However, it is important to remember that these aspects are merely supporting ‘characters’ that assist in the telling of a story.

A powerful image is one that engages us and cultivates creativity in our hearts and minds. What better way to achieve this than by telling a story? So go out into the world and use your camera to channel your creative flair. Put more thought into your shots and allow your imagination to unlock the magic of photography. Make an effort to master the technical aspects but don’t let your lack of expertise stop you from telling your own story and inspiring others to do the same.

The following photos are examples of how an image can tell a story. From a technical standpoint, these images leave a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, I believe that they tell powerful stories which transcend technical shortcomings. They remind us that everyone has the ability to tell a story regardless of the stage they are at.

The first image, titled ‘Radiance of the Heart and Soul’ tells a story. Specifically, it tells of an experience.

1.jpg

The story: Sydney’s Opera House is larger than life; arguably, it is the physical embodiment of the city’s heart and soul. While the “heart and soul” is an intangible concept, we are able to sense its energy radiating throughout the city. It truly is a surreal experience.

The second image, titled ‘Religion in an irreligious society’ tells a story. Specifically, it is a social commentary. This image features Flinders’ statue with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background. Flinders is a historical figure who played a pivotal role in the early years of Australia.

2.jpg

The story: In the past, religion had an overarching influence over the affairs of government and society. Over time, religion has steadily eroded and atheism has risen in its place. This image symbolizes Australia’s Christian past which can be contrasted with today’s irreligious society. Through this image, I am attempting to provide a social commentary on how our society continues to evolve over time for better or for worse.

3.jpg

The third image, titled ‘Getting to know Him’ tells a story. It is an image of a girl reading and reflecting upon something. What that something is, is unknown and is for the viewer to decide. Is she engaging in devotional quiet time or is she reading a love letter from a boy? Whichever it is, the image evokes emotion in our hearts and minds.

Wesley Wong is an amateur photographer based in Perth, Western Australia. You can find him at Flickr.

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  • http://portraitinspiration.com/ Jai Catalano

    Every journey starts with a story. Telling it isn’t always easy. However it’s always lovely to see a story unfold in a photo.

  • http://www.flixelpix.com david

    I have been trying to focus on telling a story over just capturing an image. I think many of us start out telling stories but end up distracted my stats and comments on our photos. I’ve tried to refocus on telling a story regardless of the size of the audience who can read it http://www.flixelpix.com/blog/reportage-photography/

  • ccting

    Using book to reflect the window light on face?.. great!

  • http://constantphotographer.blogspot.com/ Gustavo J. Mata

    Your contribution made me organize the following pictures by thinking of them as panels in a comic strip.

    http://apartaderos.blogspot.com/2012/08/centro-de-caracas.html

    To a native of Caracas they are full of connotations. I wonder how they would be read by viewers elsewhere.

  • raghavendra
  • http://www.wildlifeencounters.eu steve slater
  • http://www.slickflick.com Alma

    Photography and storytelling unlock limitless creativity, that’s what us at SlickFlick are trying to spread to the world! Like here: http://www.slickflick.com/story/BoPHCtBA4Wn

  • Scottc

    Nice article. Images can “hint” at a story in an abstract way and let the viewer’s imagination do the rest.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/7816857306/

  • Wesley Wong

    Thanks for all your responses. David, you make good points in your article. I, too, understand the difficulty in telling a story where its subject matter is a discipline few are conversant in. It can be frustrating when the intended message is lost on the viewer.

  • Wesley Wong

    In my case, I have a keen interest in History. Photography certainly allows me to combine my interests by providing a medium in which I can communicate what I feel passionate about. I want to challenge myself to use my photography as a tool to delve into the past and comment on historical issues. I may not always succeed but it was never meant to be easy. While using an image to tell a story can be difficult, it has potential to be more effective and impactful than words. Additionally, an image is a language that everyone understands; it has the ability to deliver a message that transcends linguistic barriers and in doing so, reach a larger audience.

  • Naz

    I hope this doesn’t come across as too harsh, but Sorry, but I’m not seeign the ‘stories’ that you describe- a photo should tell the story without needing an itnerpreter to explain what we should be seeing- the religious photo- well, it’s just a photo of a religious figure and church- the photo does not describe to the viewer the ‘irreligiousness’ of the country I’m afraid.

    The opera house- to me, it’s not conveying the ‘heart and soul’ of the city- it’s kidna just situated off to the side with a large looming bridge dominating the scene-

    The third image is much better- you can clearly se e she is engaged i nthe material she’s reading- but I do think it woudl have been much better with a clearly defiend reading material to show more her possible thoughts or reactions to what she’s reading-

    When I was studying writing, one bit of advice was to plop the villian behind a closed door, let the reader know the villian was there, but conceal the villian from the protagonist- main character- that gives the audience a chance to get really invovled i n the story thinking to htemsleves ‘look out hero- the villian is there- can’t you hear him?”

    your shots are all very nice, however I’m afraid I’m just not seeign hte stories i nthem- the last one is better- The second story could have perhaps benifitted from perhaps a skinhead or neo nazi or some other such irreligious person with markings declarign hteir irreligiousness i nthe scene to strengthen the story some- or perhaps even a bit of irrelgious literature in the scene or something- that woudl strengthen the religion vs irreligion theme

  • Wesley Wong

    Naz, thanks for your feedback. You make very good points. As a beginner myself, I hope that I will grow stronger from this experience. With the church shot, I was assuming that the absence of religion in modern society is something that is already quite obvious without the need for a symbol. But I agree, the shot would be much stronger if there was an irreligious symbol as you mentioned. Without such a symbol, I agree that the story is not as obvious and the image can easily be mistaken for a generic “tourist shot” of the church. I agree that an image should be able to tell a story without the need for a written explanation. That is part of the challenge. In future, I will try and make better use of symbolism. As for the bridge, I wanted to include it to give context to the shot. I can see how it can be distracting to some. I was actually deciding whether to slightly crop the image. As a tourist, I was blown away by the vibrance and life of Sydney. I was hoping to use a long exposure and the “light trail” from a ferry to convey the experience I felt. I wanted to make the image something more than just another generic tourist shot.

  • Wesley Wong

    Naz, thanks for your feedback; you make very good points. As a beginner myself, I hope to learn and grow stronger from this experience.

    Regarding the church shot, I assumed that the absence of religion in present society is something that is already obvious to the viewer. However, I agree that the shot would be much stronger with a clear irreligious symbol. Without it, the story is not as obvious and the image can easily be mistaken as a generic tourist shot of a landmark. I agree that an image should be able to tell a story without the need of a written explanation. That is why storytelling is such a challenge. In future, I will try and make better use of symbolism.

    Regarding the Opera House shot, I wanted to use the Bridge to give context to the shot. I also thought it would be a good framing option for the city’s pulsating energy. However, I can see how some might find the Bridge distracting. I was actually thinking about slighting cropping the image but in the end, I decided not to. As a tourist, I was blown away by the vibrance and life of Sydney and I wanted to use this shot to convey my experience.

  • http://www.j-martin-photo.com Jeremy Martin

    Excellent article. I have found over the past couple of years that I have been more focussed on technical aspects rather than creative ones but this article and the images you shared reminded me a lot of my early work when i barely knew how to use a camera. Time to get back to the roots of my own creativity!!

  • Craig Brown

    I have to say I completely agree with Naz. I would also add that your shots are excellent in and of themselves and you do not need to tell a story to create an impact.

    I am a member of a photography club and have just started entering their competitions. I get (mildly) infuriated by what I see as an obsession with story telling and judging images by whether they tell a story or not.

    Some people say that photography can be art. Well not all art tells a story. Some of it has impact, feeling, curiosity or something else. And it’s still brilliant art.

    Also, any writer will tell you that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Basic formula, never changed in thousands of years. Try something different and it’s not a story. That is virtually impossible to achieve in a picture.

    A picture, whether art or photograph, depends on interpretation by the viewer. I would suggest that what photographers should really be doing is being true to themselves and through that trying to create an impact. Forget the story, focus on the image.

Some older comments

  • Craig Brown

    October 15, 2012 06:49 am

    I have to say I completely agree with Naz. I would also add that your shots are excellent in and of themselves and you do not need to tell a story to create an impact.

    I am a member of a photography club and have just started entering their competitions. I get (mildly) infuriated by what I see as an obsession with story telling and judging images by whether they tell a story or not.

    Some people say that photography can be art. Well not all art tells a story. Some of it has impact, feeling, curiosity or something else. And it's still brilliant art.

    Also, any writer will tell you that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Basic formula, never changed in thousands of years. Try something different and it's not a story. That is virtually impossible to achieve in a picture.

    A picture, whether art or photograph, depends on interpretation by the viewer. I would suggest that what photographers should really be doing is being true to themselves and through that trying to create an impact. Forget the story, focus on the image.

  • Jeremy Martin

    September 1, 2012 05:53 am

    Excellent article. I have found over the past couple of years that I have been more focussed on technical aspects rather than creative ones but this article and the images you shared reminded me a lot of my early work when i barely knew how to use a camera. Time to get back to the roots of my own creativity!!

  • Wesley Wong

    August 31, 2012 01:24 pm

    Naz, thanks for your feedback; you make very good points. As a beginner myself, I hope to learn and grow stronger from this experience.

    Regarding the church shot, I assumed that the absence of religion in present society is something that is already obvious to the viewer. However, I agree that the shot would be much stronger with a clear irreligious symbol. Without it, the story is not as obvious and the image can easily be mistaken as a generic tourist shot of a landmark. I agree that an image should be able to tell a story without the need of a written explanation. That is why storytelling is such a challenge. In future, I will try and make better use of symbolism.

    Regarding the Opera House shot, I wanted to use the Bridge to give context to the shot. I also thought it would be a good framing option for the city’s pulsating energy. However, I can see how some might find the Bridge distracting. I was actually thinking about slighting cropping the image but in the end, I decided not to. As a tourist, I was blown away by the vibrance and life of Sydney and I wanted to use this shot to convey my experience.

  • Wesley Wong

    August 31, 2012 01:04 pm

    Naz, thanks for your feedback. You make very good points. As a beginner myself, I hope that I will grow stronger from this experience. With the church shot, I was assuming that the absence of religion in modern society is something that is already quite obvious without the need for a symbol. But I agree, the shot would be much stronger if there was an irreligious symbol as you mentioned. Without such a symbol, I agree that the story is not as obvious and the image can easily be mistaken for a generic "tourist shot" of the church. I agree that an image should be able to tell a story without the need for a written explanation. That is part of the challenge. In future, I will try and make better use of symbolism. As for the bridge, I wanted to include it to give context to the shot. I can see how it can be distracting to some. I was actually deciding whether to slightly crop the image. As a tourist, I was blown away by the vibrance and life of Sydney. I was hoping to use a long exposure and the "light trail" from a ferry to convey the experience I felt. I wanted to make the image something more than just another generic tourist shot.

  • Naz

    August 31, 2012 05:42 am

    I hope this doesn't come across as too harsh, but Sorry, but I'm not seeign the 'stories' that you describe- a photo should tell the story without needing an itnerpreter to explain what we should be seeing- the religious photo- well, it's just a photo of a religious figure and church- the photo does not describe to the viewer the 'irreligiousness' of the country I'm afraid.

    The opera house- to me, it's not conveying the 'heart and soul' of the city- it's kidna just situated off to the side with a large looming bridge dominating the scene-

    The third image is much better- you can clearly se e she is engaged i nthe material she's reading- but I do think it woudl have been much better with a clearly defiend reading material to show more her possible thoughts or reactions to what she's reading-

    When I was studying writing, one bit of advice was to plop the villian behind a closed door, let the reader know the villian was there, but conceal the villian from the protagonist- main character- that gives the audience a chance to get really invovled i n the story thinking to htemsleves 'look out hero- the villian is there- can't you hear him?"

    your shots are all very nice, however I'm afraid I'm just not seeign hte stories i nthem- the last one is better- The second story could have perhaps benifitted from perhaps a skinhead or neo nazi or some other such irreligious person with markings declarign hteir irreligiousness i nthe scene to strengthen the story some- or perhaps even a bit of irrelgious literature in the scene or something- that woudl strengthen the religion vs irreligion theme

  • Wesley Wong

    August 28, 2012 12:55 pm

    In my case, I have a keen interest in History. Photography certainly allows me to combine my interests by providing a medium in which I can communicate what I feel passionate about. I want to challenge myself to use my photography as a tool to delve into the past and comment on historical issues. I may not always succeed but it was never meant to be easy. While using an image to tell a story can be difficult, it has potential to be more effective and impactful than words. Additionally, an image is a language that everyone understands; it has the ability to deliver a message that transcends linguistic barriers and in doing so, reach a larger audience.

  • Wesley Wong

    August 28, 2012 12:53 pm

    Thanks for all your responses. David, you make good points in your article. I, too, understand the difficulty in telling a story where its subject matter is a discipline few are conversant in. It can be frustrating when the intended message is lost on the viewer.

  • Scottc

    August 28, 2012 09:47 am

    Nice article. Images can "hint" at a story in an abstract way and let the viewer's imagination do the rest.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/7816857306/

  • Alma

    August 27, 2012 10:59 pm

    Photography and storytelling unlock limitless creativity, that's what us at SlickFlick are trying to spread to the world! Like here: http://www.slickflick.com/story/BoPHCtBA4Wn

  • steve slater

    August 27, 2012 05:51 pm

    People in the shot can often help to make the story
    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-of-Olhao-Portugal/G0000poIsSG3qQDA/I0000M.pr1Jw8ytQ

  • raghavendra

    August 27, 2012 01:49 pm

    I love the art of story telling :)

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/p/story-through-pictures.html

  • Gustavo J. Mata

    August 27, 2012 01:32 pm

    Your contribution made me organize the following pictures by thinking of them as panels in a comic strip.

    http://apartaderos.blogspot.com/2012/08/centro-de-caracas.html

    To a native of Caracas they are full of connotations. I wonder how they would be read by viewers elsewhere.

  • ccting

    August 27, 2012 10:22 am

    Using book to reflect the window light on face?.. great!

  • david

    August 27, 2012 10:08 am

    I have been trying to focus on telling a story over just capturing an image. I think many of us start out telling stories but end up distracted my stats and comments on our photos. I've tried to refocus on telling a story regardless of the size of the audience who can read it http://www.flixelpix.com/blog/reportage-photography/

  • Jai Catalano

    August 27, 2012 09:56 am

    Every journey starts with a story. Telling it isn't always easy. However it's always lovely to see a story unfold in a photo.

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