“I don’t just take photographs, I think.”

Don McCullin

Storytelling with photography

Like all stories, documentary is an edited version of reality. The photographic frame is an edited version of a particular environment or situation. The time, the place and the people present are all editorial choices. I can photograph the London Underground at 8am in the morning, at the height of the daily work commute, and create a different sense of people and place than if I photographed at 11pm at night as people return from a night out. My choice of time is an editorial decision that is informed by the story I am trying to tell (or should be).

Documentary makers, both film and photographic, often start with a hypothesis, however loose, that they want to explore. This creates focus and efficiency.

As someone who has made a number of documentaries for corporate clients I have read fairly extensively about the history of documentary films and my favourite book on the subject is called Imagining Reality – the Faber book of Documentary.

Richard Leacock, one of the pioneers of what is now called Cinema Verite but was then called, Direct Cinema, explained in an interview that he started out with a structure in mind and the creative process was to film without interference or interviews. ‘Now the strange thing is that in filming these (the structure), we find that there are two adventures. You have a sort of exploration: you go out and film, and all your acts are final. You can’t go back. You can’t say Please do that again. If you missed someone coming through a door, you’ve missed him: that’s it. Don’t say a thing. You’re making judgements and each judgement is final.’

Peacock went on to explain that editing could also reveal unexpected challenges, not unlike the ones we encounter as photographers: ‘We find that editing is often a process of discovery that what we thought was the structure doesn’t seem to work. It’s hard to say exactly what I mean by that but it doesn’t seem right….Often we discover a new kind of drama that we were not really aware of when we shot it.’

“A photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought”

W. Eugene Smith

In 1948 W. Eugene Smith created a photographic documentary story called Country Doctor for Life Magazine. Smith described the process of creating the story: ‘I bear in mind that I have to have an opener and closer. Then I make a mental picture of how to fill in between these two. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I’ll lie in bed and do a sketch of the pictures I already have. Then I’ll decide what pictures I need.’

USA. Colorado. Kremmling. 1948. Dr. Ernest Guy CERIANI, a country doctor (aged 32), going to visit his patients in their rem

Smith is clearly describing the process of editing, or choosing, which aspects of the Doctor’s daily routine that he wants to capture in order to create a compelling story. He’s thinking about the final form or presentation of his work and presumably, he’s considering his audience as well.

I have to have an opener and closer. Then I make a mental picture of how to fill in between these two

W. Eugene Smith

Arranging images

The Magnum agency describes Smith’s work: ‘The Country Doctor works in series: the arrangement of images providing viewers with a carefully crafted snapshot of [Dr] Ceriani’s existence. With the order of his photographs being as important as each individual frame, falling into disagreement with publications over their edits was a common occurrence for Smith. Ultimately, however, his work is so distinctive because it takes the format of the traditional photoessay while infusing the stories with a psychological depth and intricacy of narrative heretofore unprecedented in photojournalism.’

In 1955 Smith was asked by the Magnum agency to deliver 100 photographs that could be used to celebrate the centenary of Pittsburgh. What followed was an example of trying to create a story without focus or structure. Smith was supposed to spend three weeks photographing in Pittsburgh but instead he stayed for three years. The man who compared his role as a photographer to that of a playwright, was trying, not just to write one play, but a whole works. The result was over 21,000 photographs of which just a small fraction were published as a photobook in 1959.

Smith was undoubtedly a brilliant storyteller and an exceptional photographer but there is something else in his description of the storytelling process that we should not overlook – research. Smith could only envisage the opener, closer and the images in between if he knew something about his subject. This is where I think many photographers fail to set themselves up for success. Often we have an idea or a theme and we hope to discover more about it as we photograph and sometimes this can work but oftentimes it won’t. Don McCullin could visit a war zone and discover a story while he was there but he was experienced in the theatre of war and focused. For McCullin it wasn’t like Smith and Pittsburgh.

Storytelling is about the Who, What, Where, Why and When. As documentary photographers our first thought must be to put pen to paper, and asking ourselves: What’s the brief?

Adding to my own list of what documentary photography means to me I would include: That it is a discipline that is distinct from simply recording an event; it is setting out with a clear purpose (that might change) to use photography as a means to convey a message to an audience that you have identified.

Also read the blog about working with writers which is what many documentary photographers did in the days of the photo-essay or photo story.