Photographs Don’t Tell Stories – YOU Do.

Do you ever look at a photograph and wonder what stories lie behind it? While photographs capture moments in time, they don’t always reveal the complete narrative. It is up to us, the viewers, to add our own interpretations and personal experiences to give these images meaning. In this blog, we will explore how photographs act as a canvas for our stories to unfold. We will discuss the power of storytelling through photography and how it allows us to create connections, evoke emotions, and share our unique perspectives. Join us as we delve into the world where photographs don’t tell stories – you do.

Photographs Don’t Tell Stories – YOU Do

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The Misapprehension of Photographs

I have a question for you: if a picture is worth a thousand words, whose words are they? Hey everybody, I’m Hugh Brownstone for Three blind men and an elephant, and today I want to talk to you about something that’s been bothering me for a while now, a misapprehension and intellectual laxity, if you will, that I think corrected just might do more for your understanding and appreciation of photography, the world around you, your own craft, yourself than anything I could share with you about gear or technique. It’s the hackneyed notion that individual photographs tell stories, because they don’t, you do.

The Definition of Story

If you google the word “story,” this is the definition you get, which, by the way, is actually taken from lexico, a collaboration between dictionary.com and Oxford university press, so I think it will do for our purposes here. Story, noun, an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment. Okay, but I’d list other purposes for stories as well, including to inform, educate, comfort, remind, justify, inculcate, cell, self-aggrandize, incite, terrify, control, you get the idea. Stories are powerful. But first principles, a story is an account, that’s what Oxford says, that is a telling rather than the people and events per se. And this is where we get into trouble. How does one tell a story?

The Importance of Sentences

This is not a “how many Angels dance on the head of a pin” kind of question. It is fundamental. Now Aristotle considered a sequence of events to be the first crucial element of a story. He called this sequence the plot and asserted that it required a beginning, a middle, and an end. I like that, simple, clean, direct. Actionable. Hold that thought though, because the intermediary step we need to complete that thought is the concept of a sentence. Sentence, noun, a set of words that is complete in itself, typically containing a subject and predicate, conveying a statement, question, exclamation, or command, and consisting of a main clause and sometimes one or more subordinate clauses. In other words, a story is made up of sentences which communicate a sequence of events involving people that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, not a single decisive moment, a trajectory or narrative arc, as any screenwriter will tell you. But does a single photograph all on its own offer us a literal visual translation of an entire universally understood story? Does it tell you the story? If you think so, do you think it tells the same story to everyone who views it? I think that each of us imbues a photograph with meaning and feeling based on the totality of our own life’s experiences up until the moment we take the time not only to glance at the photograph but to really see it, which in turn leads inescapably to the conclusion that every single one of us experiences a different story when viewing an image, to the extent that we think it tells a story at all. Thus, the answer to the question I asked at the outset, whose thousand words is that image worth? Is yours. You tell the story. A photograph per se isn’t a story so much as it is a two-dimensional thing that in most cases represents a three-dimensional thing at a point in time, either or both with the potential to be described in sentences. But sentences without structure are not a story. I think of a single photograph as a prompt, a prod to think, feel, learn, an invitation to explore, an opportunity to teach, a challenge to see ourselves.

The Power of Words and Images Together

None of which is to say that a body of work, a series of photographs cannot communicate a beginning, middle, and end, nor that some photographs cannot approach a universality understood by literally millions of people. This was never truer, I think, than in the middle of the last century when, at its peak, Life magazine sold 13 and a half million copies a week, publishing photo essays like W. Eugene Smith’s “Country Doctor” and covers like Alfred Eisenstadt’s “The Kiss.” Now, if ever a single image could tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end, “The Kiss” marking the official end of the war with Japan in 1945 would have to be considered a top contender. Of course, there are many stories behind this image, but what makes it a top contender is the fact that World War II was an experience shared by hundreds of millions of people across the globe, as was this image. I like what Marilyn Kushner said, “Before Life magazine articles in the US consisted of a picture that illustrated a story, afterwards it was the text that illustrated the photograph.” I think that’s a lovely distinction. The thing of it is, words and images together tell a story better than either can alone. That’s what we have movies for. But even when you have two people in the same room at the same time, they are certain to hear, see, and/or interpret things differently, even when a person is talking to them directly. We all have our filters; we all have our fault lines.

Looking at Photographs

So let’s do this. Let’s look at a few photographs, and as I display each one, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I know this photograph?
  • Do I know who took it, when, where, why?
  • What actual specific story does it tell me?
  • How precisely does it do that?
  • What do I see in the photograph?
  • What is its beginning, middle, and end?
  • What are the sentences it speaks to me?
  • How do I know this is the story and these are the sentences?
  • How do I know this is what the photographer meant to tell me?
  • What might this image tell me about the photographer, the photographer’s relationship to what and who are in frame?
  • Finally, what, if anything, do my answers to these questions tell me about me?

I’ll run through them as a montage, but feel free to pause at any time to study them. I’ll rejoin you at the end to tell you a bit more about them.

Migrant Mother

Let’s begin with “Migrant Mother,” shot in 1936 by Dorothea Lang. Lang was commissioned by Roy Striker, what later became known as the Farm Security Administration, to introduce Americans to Americans. Maybe you already knew this, but that’s not a story. That’s a couple of declarative sentences. In fact, there are once again many stories behind this one image, like for instance how the Farm Security Administration came into existence as a New Deal agency created under the Roosevelt administration to combat rural poverty arising from the Great Depression, how it flourished and then was criticized for being collectivist. FDR himself was accused of being a socialist and ultimately disbanded shortly after the end of World War II. Or who that woman was, how we came to learn more about her and what happened to her. In 1978, 42 years after the photo was taken, Florence Owens Thompson, a Native American, wrote to a local newspaper to reveal that she was the woman in the photograph and told her story, which was quite different from the one Dorothea Lange recounted. Or what about the story of how Dorothea Lange came to be a photographer with particular sensibilities she had in the first place, which allowed her to capture the image the way she did. I’ll leave it to you to learn more about these stories, all prompted by this one image.

Journée de Pentecôte (Picnic)

Henri Cartier-Bresson shot “Journée de Pentecôte” in 1938 on the banks of the Marne River in France. Maybe you already know this as well as the fact that this was the kind of scene, a picnic, many painters had captured before Cartier-Bresson took the shot. Perhaps you know that before he was a photographer, he was a painter. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’ve never even heard of Cartier-Bresson. I urge you to learn more about this extraordinary individual and the story he tells with his photographs.

FAQ: Photographs Don’t Tell Stories – YOU Do

Q1: What is the concept of “Photographs Don’t Tell Stories – YOU Do”?

A1: “Photographs Don’t Tell Stories – YOU Do” is a concept highlighting that photographs alone are not enough to convey a complete story. It emphasizes the vital role of the viewer or storyteller in interpreting and adding context to the visual narrative.

Q2: How can photographs be insufficient in telling a story?

A2: Photographs capture moments frozen in time, often without any accompanying information or background context. They present only a single perspective, lacking the subjective interpretation and personal understanding that viewers can bring to enhance the story.

Q3: What is the significance of the viewer in storytelling?

A3: The viewer plays a critical role in storytelling as they actively engage with and interpret the photographs, bringing their own experiences, emotions, and knowledge to fill the gaps of information. Their unique perspective adds depth and meaning to the visual narrative.

Q4: How can we unlock the stories behind photographs?

A4: To unlock the stories behind photographs, one needs to research, inquire, and connect with the visual elements present in the image. By delving into the context, exploring the subject matter, and considering different viewpoints, we can reveal the narratives beyond what meets the eye.

Q5: Can photographs ever convey a complete story on their own?

A5: While photographs possess the power to evoke emotions and capture moments in time, they often require additional information or the viewer’s interpretation to form a complete story. The story emerges when the photograph interacts with the viewer’s experience and understanding.

I hope you find useful my article Photographs Don’t Tell Stories – YOU Do., I also recommend you to read my other posts in my blog at this link.

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Best of luck! and follow your passion.

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