The Real Mission is Storytelling

By , July 9, 2014 11:44 am
When I initially approached these guys about taking their picture, they wanted to pose in a big group. I politely explained that it wasn't what I wanted, and asked them to relax and go about their evening. It took a few minutes for them to do so, but you can see how much better this image is than a group of them posing.

When I initially approached these guys about taking their picture, they wanted to pose in a big group. I politely explained that it wasn’t what I wanted, and asked them to relax and go about their evening. It took a few minutes for them to do so, but you can see how much better this image is than a group of them posing.

I’m teaching a beginning digital photography class next week, and 12 of the enrollees are high school yearbook students. It’s fun to have enough people in class, because it can energize the room, but I may find it difficult to convey to high schoolers one of my most important messages: storytelling.

It's easy to make a group photo of troops who are leaving for deployment, but it's vastly more powerful to photograph a moment like this.

It’s easy to make a group photo of troops who are leaving for deployment, but it’s vastly more powerful to photograph a moment like this.

I’ve watched high school photographers at ball games and graduations and class plays and so on, and they almost always fall into the same imaging paradigm: stop the action, get the subjects to grin like apes at the camera, blast away with direct flash, and come away with, essentially, nothing.

So as a high school yearbook photographer, who is your audience? In some very significant ways, you are, only 20, 30, 40 years in the future. What can we offer this audience? If we give them 175 “party pics,” we’ll be doing them a serious disservice, because, as I have discussed before, when you stop a moment to get people to pose for a photo, that photo no longer expresses the moment. It expresses people posing for a photograph, usually predictably and boringly.

I appreciate how hard it might be for a high school kid to say no to, “Hey, take my picture,” or to turn down an opportunity when a bunch of kids are “cheesing” for you. In the smart phone camera era, everyone is conditioned to do that. But I am here to testify: these aren’t the images you want.

Also, of course, is this: you and your friends and everyone else already has hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of these same boring party pics. If you don’t believe me, do a web image search for “group photos,” and look at how similar the photos look, and how they don’t tell us much about the people and the moment.

After the obligatory group photo when the Roff Tigers won a state championship, there was this moment, which is filled with almost infinitely more emotion.

After the obligatory group photo when the Roff Tigers won a state championship, there was this moment, which is filled with almost infinitely more emotion.

So if not party pics, Richard, what? Very simply, we are trying to tell a story with our images. Wait for the moment. Watch for it. It’s not before the game when everyone is goofing off. It’s when the three-pointer hits the rim and bounces out at the buzzer. It’s not when the principal and the debate student pose with the plaque. It’s when the debate student is at a tournament, waiting tensely in the lobby to find out if he’ll finish first or second. It’s not when the dignitary hands a check to the student council president and shakes her hand. It’s when she then holds up the check with tears in her eyes and the crowd goes wild for their achievement. It’s not when the football team grudgingly accepts their runner-up trophy. It’s when tears are streaming down their faces with 00:00 on the clock.

Look through the portfolio of any award-winning photographer and you won’t find party pics or group photos. You will find stories. Look at those images, and begin to explore how you can tell your stories.

There are often a lot of photographers making pictures on senior night, in this case Ada Lady Cougar softball, and those photographers want group photos of the families holding their ribbons and roses, grinning their butts off. But this image brings the story home better than any of those photos, that Blakeley Franz was about to play her last high school softball game.

There are often a lot of photographers making pictures on senior night, in this case Ada Lady Cougar softball, and those photographers want group photos of the families holding their ribbons and roses, grinning their butts off. But this image brings the story home better than any of those photos, that Blakeley Franz was about to play her last high school softball game.

One Response to “The Real Mission is Storytelling”

  1. Dan Marsh says:

    I kept this in mind today as a former state senator and Arkansas governor was being introduced today at Rotary Club. I took a much more informal, wide-angle shot, and it’s a lot more fun (and includes more local faces). The one shot I rejected was a “stand still and look at the camera” pose.

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