THE PARADOX OF STORYTELLING IN PHOTOGRAPHY

Who could not believe Rod Stewart when he rocked us with “Every Picture Tells a Story”, or the hundreds of thousands of textbooks and articles that proclaim that “a picture is worth a thousand words”? And who isn’t convinced of the power of storytelling in photography?

To be honest, I’d put my hand up for that.

For now, without a better semantical definition and distinction between the awkward questions around what is a story and does a photographer record a story, tell a story, or create a story, I’m dazed and confused?

The very idea of a story in the context of photography, is itself a semantic mess. For starters, from dictionary.com:

“story in literature: a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader”

Of course, that literal definition doesn’t work for photography, but perhaps this does:

“story in photography: the background, in context, either actual or contrived, in images, designed to interest, amuse, depict, or instruct the viewer”

But, using a movie analogy, is the photographer the camera-man, the director, or the scriptwriter … or all of the above?

OK, Jumping right in.

Here’s an image of a Jalapeno pepper. What’s the story?

Of course, there are textbooks on every aspect of Jalapenos, from cultivation, heat index, medicinal properties, and culinary qualities.

But what did the photographer want to say about this?

Well, as the photographer, I can say that the interest I was seeking to elicit in the viewer is: I’ve never looked at a pepper that way before. So, from the definition above, the intent is to spark interest in the viewer so … the image IS the story.

Now, another photographer may have an alternative intention – perhaps the Jalapeno is a metaphor for the spice of life, or multicultural culinary influences, or … and if I published this WITH NO WORDS … does it matter what I intended verses what the viewer may infer?

Ultimately, is there even a story in this image? Or, is the story that the viewer can create any story that pleases them?

Here’s another. A bull in an Indian Shop

The background here is that this is store in Varanasi, India. This cow sits peacefully in this store for hours each evening and has done so for a decade.

That would make a compelling story, but for one wrinkle … I knew nothing of this before I shot the scene. My intention was simply that if I had never seen anything like this, many others may find this as interesting as I had, so I shot it solely for a record – a memory.

There is a great story here, but as the photographer, can I take any credit for it?
Other than recognizing an interesting scene?

And this. Sunrise on the River Ganges.

One of a series of twenty shots where I had wanted to capture the serenity of the River Ganges as she wakes up.

One story here is that every evening a Hindu ceremony puts the river to sleep, and she is woken each morning by another ceremony. The other nineteen images are just that.

But this one grabbed me because of that plastic water bottle in the right foreground – a complete accident. This could have been the basis for a story of man-made, global pollution, or the juxtaposition of a 21st century drinking water container and the ancient source of water for millions of Indians in the Ganges basin. I wish.

But the real background here is deeper and much more interesting. Mother Ganges is one of the world’s most polluted rivers. Yet every morning thousands of Hindus bathe religiously in the river and remain healthy, and despite its pollution, has x25 the levels of oxygen as any river in the world. So much so, that there is an indigenous shark that is native to the river. The story of this image is of morning serenity, but a knowledgeable viewer may construe many more interesting ones. Should I be given credit? Should I take it?

Now for something different.

This is an image I used to help get this kitten adopted. But what’s the story with the basket?

I used the basket as a metaphor for: (a) a basket of bountiful gifts, (b) joyful surprise upon opening.

Whether the story worked or not, the kitten was adopted very quickly.

CONCLUDING

Every object, person, or scene in every photograph has its own story, on multiple levels. Perhaps the only VALID story is what the photographer INTENDED, by design.

Or does it even matter?

Perhaps the art of photographic storytelling is to provide the ingredients and let the viewer make the dish – even if it’s not the dish you had intended?

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