An overview of visual storytelling for photographers

One of the most universal visual stories is a series of image that reads left to right, starting with an ape bent over and finishes with a man walking upright. The story is of evolution and it is so familiar to us that we don’t need any text to explain it, the visual is sufficient.

Man evolving through time

But it’s also important to remember that it is a story and not a statement, such as a roadsign.

We experience visual stories primarily through film, graphics, painting, sculpture and photography. As I write this article, I’m sitting under a print on my office wall by the artist PJ Crook. The image is of twelve friends sat around a table in a restaurant that overlooks a vibrant city. The group are at the end of a celebratory meal and now enjoying a smoke and small talk. There is no text, the image conveys the story.

Visual storytelling for photographers

Susan Sontag, John Berger and others have described a photograph as a quotation. A moment in time that is captured and presented in a rectangle or square format. The complete story might be conveyed by a 360 degree view but that is unlikely to be very engaging, which means the role of the photographer is to decide what visual quotations best tell the story.  A playwright goes through the same process making decisions about what dialogue and interactions are necessary for the audience to understand the story; there’s a reason why we don’t see Hamlet getting out of bed in the morning and getting dressed – it doesn’t contribute to the story that Shakespeare wanted to tell us.

When we think about visual storytelling in the same way that we think about how a play is constructed, we can start to appreciate that it is a craft and discipline. Shooting 500 frames a day doesn’t guarantee that you have a story to tell because it’s not about quantity, it’s about the quality of each image and how they work together, just like putting together a sentence.

The documentary photographer, Matt Black, believes that there is no right way to sequence images, it’s a feeling you get when each image builds on the previous ones to tell the story. 

Of course, like the written word, there is a visual grammar that can employed. If we use Matt Black’s ‘American Geography’ monograph as an example we can see that he uses a panoramic image of the landscape to punctuate sections and then focuses on the detail of buildings, skills and people associated with the landscape. 

Matt Black’s American Geography

To oversimplify it, we can see the structure is roughly:

  • Here is where we are 
  • Here is what it looks like
  • Here are the people that live and work here
  • Here are some of the struggles they face

That’s the story he wants to tell. There is no happy ending because the places, people and the struggles continue.

Eugene Smith’s famous ‘Country Doctor’ story starts with the image of a well-dressed man, walking through a meadow in a rural setting, carrying a bag usually associated with doctors. It’s the ‘establishing shot’ that we are used to seeing in TV and film.

We then see another man, not as well dressed, slightly unkempt, sat in a chair with bookcases behind and certificates on the wall. The man has a child in his lap. By placing this image after the first we can conclude that either the man or the child is unwell and is waiting to see the doctor. There then follows a sequence of images of the doctor quite clearly treating patients. The patients are of all ages and the locations vary from his office to homes to the back of a car. The story being told is of a busy doctor who works in community where he most needed.

All of this can be ‘read’ from the images alone.

What do you want to say?

You can’t be an effective visual storyteller without first having some clear objectives or at least a working hypothesis. As I have written previously, documentary photography usually starts with a personal motivation to throw light onto a subject and is then developed into ideas about how that can be achieved.  

With an objective – the why – and some ideas – the what – you can start identify the types of images you need to visualise your story.

If I was to apply this to the village where I live I might think about photographing the sign that welcomes people into the village, the railway station, the bakery, the old country cottages and the new social housing, the cricketers on the village green and the kids hanging about the playground. Visually, I’m now thinking about juxtapositions, the inequality that exists in an English village… get the idea.

Visual storytelling often starts with a voice. A voice that asks: how do I tell people about this through my photography?