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Thread: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

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    FlyingSquirrel's Avatar
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    My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    Something that has been bugging me for a while now, and I finally decided to bring it up, is the old saying to the effect of "What is the story that your photo tells?" or "A photo must tell a story or it's not a good photo", etc.

    Basically, I think the thing that is most annoying to me about this is that it is way too general. I feel like a lot of people adhere to this adamantly and fervently, without really considering there may be cases where it doesn't apply. All of this is, of course, my personal opinion. I believe there are many types of photos and situations where it is legitimate to work within the "Tell a story" guideline. But I think there are at least as many cases where it is not necessary.

    The type of shots that come to mind which could easily fall outside the realm of the "story rule" would be photographs of wildlife, or some kind of graphically pleasing still life, among other things. Sure, it would be possible in some cases to tell a story about an animal's behavior, or interaction with another animal or environment. Then there are photos that are just "the animal" which can, IMO, be just as good or powerful of an image. Take a close up shot of a bird, with a blurred background. The subject is the bird. No story, just the bird. It might be nice if it were eating a berry, but if it's just sitting on a branch, it's not any less of a shot, I think. And I don't know if "Eating a berry" would really be a story, anyway. Let's say you photograph a fern leaf, close up, almost as a fine art piece perhaps. There really isn't a story, but the photo can be powerful and engaging.

    Then again, it just occurred to me that "telling a story" could be highly subjective. Some may take it literally, as in it has to explain exactly what was going on, whereas some may take it more liberally, as in, pretty much any photo tells a story inherently because it is capturing something and the viewer is then seeing it.

    I'm curious what your opinions on the matter are.

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    Moderator Donald's Avatar
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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    For me the concept of 'telling a story' is pretty simple - It's the question that needs answered when I should (or anyone else might) ask when I'm lining up the shot - "Why are you taking this photograph?".

    So, for the animal or bird - Am I taking this photograph to show the beauty of the colour or patterns in the animals coat/feathers, etc? Am I doing it to show the beauty and grace, or power of the animal? Am I doing it to document aspects of its behaviour? What is it I want to tell people?

    And the fern leaf - Am I taking this photograph to show the beauty in the detail of a fern leaf? Am I doing it to show the context/environment in which ferns thrive? Am I showing it to contrast with something else? What is it I want to tell people?

    So the 'story' lies in what I want people (including myself) to see in the image. And to paraphrase Ansel Adams the goal is to have the picture alone tell that story - "... you either get it or you don't get it, but there's nothing on the back of the print that tells you what you should get."
    Last edited by Donald; 26th April 2013 at 07:25 AM.

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    Letrow's Avatar
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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    I can find myself in what Donald is saying, that makes a lot of sense. But Matt is right in thinking that some people really promote telling a story with photos. Not just the 'why are you taking a photograph'.
    And that of course won't work all the time.
    For my own photography I adhere to what Donald suggests. Flowers, insects, dogs, even people portraits, most of the time I make the photo because I see something interesting in the subject itself.

    I kind of struggle with the other kind of story, unless I run into it. I do admire the photos by e.g. HCB that show you a scene and people and where you can think about the context of that photo. Maybe that is why I like my own photos, but keep coming back to the photo books that are further ahead.

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    There are layers to any photograph, especially of the same subject. For instance, if you photograph a lake surrounded by foliage, it's story can be scenic (a place you might visit), it could be environmental (focusing on or using debris as an added element), it could be recreational (a dock or a boat visible), it could be rendered in black and white (nostalgia or suggested bad weather).

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    Matt I agree - I think you being peeved is totally justifiable. To tell a classic style of story you need a beginning, a middle and an end. A sequence of photographs may tell a story but a single image at the best only indicates a story. It will depend on the viewers experience and background as to what they think the story maybe.

    A good photograph will give us a clue as to how someone else views or expands our own view on a fragment of our world or moment in time. The emotional response of a viewer to the image may be very different from that of the photographers. (An entomologist probably has a totally different response to a photograph of a spider than that of someone who hates spiders - certainly different stories)

    A photographs that makes the viewer want to pause and think or enjoy is probably the most a photographer hopes for - not a story. If time is money then the longer they look the greater the value of the photograph.
    Last edited by pnodrog; 26th April 2013 at 10:25 AM.

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    Not just to do with stories: too narrow.

    All photos do a job. If they don't do the job, they are not good.

    The job may be tell a story, show a product, illustrate an idea, evoke a memory...whatever. Photos therefore need to be seen in context and are either effective of not in that context.

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    My take on this topic is that if the concept of telling a story helps you make better photos, keep it in mind. If not, don't. (It does help me.)

    Depending on how literally one wants to interpret the concept of telling a story, I could argue that an abstract that displays only shape and tones with no recognizable features does tell a story. I could also argue that it doesn't. So, in the end, the "tell-a-story" label is only that -- a label, which may or may not be helpful depending on one's perception of it.

    Understanding that, we shouldn't get upset when people refer strongly to the concept. Similarly, those that do shouldn't get upset when others find it unhelpful or perhaps misleading.

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    I have a lot of problem with the idea of being "peeved" by a viewer's response. You seem to feel that the viewer has no right to impose a standard on your photograph at the same time that you feel perfectly justified in imposing a standard on the viewer. If you are taking your photos just for yourself, take whatever pics you want and enjoy them yourself. Problem solved. But, if you want to involve another person in your photography, that person is as free to respond in whatever manner suits them as you are to take whatever kind of photo works for you. The point of interacting with a viewer is to get a response that isn't yours. Or so ISTM.

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    I think some of this is just a matter of words. I don't think of it as a "story." I often ask myself questions such as "what is the image really about", or "what is the focal point to which the image should draw the viewer?" No one set of words works for all images.

    The type of shots that come to mind which could easily fall outside the realm of the "story rule" would be photographs of wildlife, or some kind of graphically pleasing still life, among other things
    These are cases where the metaphor of a "story" is probably a bad choice, but I think the point is the similar. What's the difference between an uninteresting snapshot of a scene and a well-done landscape? Whatever those properties are is what I think these terms are (or should be) trying to identify. I do a lot of macro of bugs and flowers, and they don't tell a "story," but the difference between the ones that have a clear topic or focus and those that don't is usually pretty clear.

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    If a great photograph tells a story, then I know of lots of blurry, dark cell phone photo series of drunken nights on the town that apparently deserve critical acclaim. Like most short statements about photography, I think the "must tell a story" rule is frequently true, but certainly not an absolute. A National Geographic Travel photographer needs to tell a story, as does a photojournalist. But a fine art photographer is probably more interested in generating reactions, and an action photographer cares most about catching dramatic slices of motion. All approaches are perfectly valid, and all give the viewer a reason to stop, look, and then think, feel, or wonder.

    Quote Originally Posted by pnodrog
    A photographs that makes the viewer want to pause and think or enjoy is probably the most a photographer hopes for - not a story. If time is money then the longer they look the greater the value of the photograph.
    To my mind, this strikes very close to the definition of a good photograph. Whatever else is true, it has to make people stop and look. Why it does so is nearly irrelevant as far as I'm concerned.

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    I don't really think that every photo needs to tell a story but, I do think that it needs to evoke some type of reaction from the viewer.

    The reaction might be pleasure at beauty, interest in something to learn, sorrow, horror (yes a good photo can he horrible), anger, humor, pride, etc., etc...

    If a photo doesn't evoke some sort of reaction from me; it is not a good photo (for me) however, it might be a good photo for you!

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    My opinion on this is - if I don't want to know what someone thinks about my photography, - I don't ask. And if I do, I try to take all comments with a 'grain of salt', remembering that the whole subject of photography is extremely subjective to personal opinion.

    I have a group of several acquaintances that regularaly exchange our work with each other, and freely critique each others work very honestly. This works very well because we share the same subjectivity in regards to photography. Specifically, we are all trying to improve all aspects of our work, and can learn from each other. That doesn't mean I agree with each individual's critique I feel I should point out that this exchange is not dependent on 'subject matter' or 'style', but focuses on basic technique, composition, including post processing work.

    It seem there are so many different 'styles' or 'types' of photography that I have to agree with what Dan (DanK) said about "the metaphor of a "story" is probably a bad choice", but I do try to remember to ask myself Donald's question - "Why are you taking this photograph?". Many times the answer is - I just want to see what it looks like. These shots seem to be more prevalent today with digital format, but they rarely if ever get past the editing portion of my workflow. They are quite useful in learning to take advantage of new opportunities for an actual photograph.

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    I agree with Mark... However, IMO, there are many folks who look at images but, never see them.

    There are also folks like my sister-in-law who don't care a whit about an image unless it contains a likeness of someone or something (her house for example) that she is familiar with and preferably has an emotional attachment to.

    An image could be horribly over exposed, so fuzzy that the viewer has difficulty recognizing the subject but, if the subject is even somewhat recognizeable as one of her grand daughters; the image results in Ohs! and Ahs! of maternal pleasure...

    I noticed this when I showed her my China images. The only photos she reacted to were a couple of snapshot quality images of her sister, my wife...

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    I'm a Landscape Photographer, not a Photo Journalist.

    I take pictures to please myself, sometimes if I'm lucky they please other people too.

    That's my story.

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    Photojournalism needs to "tell a story". Beyond that it's whatever you wish your photograph to be and whatever emotions it brings out in you. I have lots of photos I just like to look at. Some are landscapes, some were shot just for the colour, most of the important ones are just faces. Not many are stories but rather feelings. As others have eluded to, if you display it and others like it that's a bonus for many but unless it's a commercial endeavour you are trying to sell, don't let it structure your guiding principles().
    Last edited by Andrew1; 26th April 2013 at 06:57 PM.

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew1 View Post
    ...don't let it structure your guiding principals.
    Or even your guiding principles. In my day, they used to say, "The principal is my pal" as a mnemonic device for remembering that "-p-a-l" is the person who runs a school and "-p-l-e" is the tenet or belief.

  17. #17

    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    Hi! This thread is very interesting and meaningful ! Maybe I should snap a photo out of it
    I am not a professional photographer, actually far from that, but I want to say my opinion too. Hope you do not mind ><

    I play on both sides: sometimes I ask first, sometimes I shoot first and ask later

    For me there are some cases where I just can not find a reason to take a photo - hell, many times I do not even ask myself. Sometimes the challenge of simply taking the photo is bigger than the history the photo can tell. It happens mainly when I know that people have certainly taken billions photos about that before, but I still want to do it!

    I see myself taking useless and totally random pictures at times - and they make me laugh (either because they are horrible, either because they are totally non sense, like, for example, a photo of a white wall ). That is one of the reasons why I always have 2 big 32 GB memory cards lol Some of them - very few, I confess - turn out to be actually surprisingly good, amazing even.

    Other times I want to tell a history, or capture something interesting - that is interesting in my opinion, ofc - or I want to go out and, later on, show people the pictures I made, ask for opinions and such, and that is when I think before shooting. There are times when I think about what would please a certain person instead.

    Maybe that can be justified by my past, when I still shot with cameras that used film, and it was so expensive to me that I had to select/choose/think a lot before shooting anything. Getting out at a random day with a camera, just to take photos, was just for professionals or people with lots of money. Now, I do it almost every week. I do not want to think too much, unless, ofc, there is some opportunity to register a story (or, IDK, maybe even history), I just do not want to come back with nothing on my card - even if that means to delete all later on (which has never happened to me, always two or three are going to be pretty good), or hide them from everybody else

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    Quote Originally Posted by flyingSquirrel View Post
    Something that has been bugging me for a while now, and I finally decided to bring it up, is the old saying to the effect of "What is the story that your photo tells?" or "A photo must tell a story or it's not a good photo", etc.
    This bugs me too - I think it reflects a narrow-minded approach to art (photography). There are people that can't, don't or won't appreciate art for art's sake; I recognize that, but have no time for them.

    For street photography, a story may apply, but doesn't have to.

    For nature photography (landscapes, flora, fauna), it might apply but usually does not.

    For purely creative images, it seems to be utter nonsense.

    And while I'm on a rant - how about the statement: "the picture doesn't look real". If you are a dentist and are photographing someone's teeth, then yes reality is important.

    For the most part, reality has very little to do with photography.

    For stories, we have books.

    For inspiration we have photography.

    Glenn

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    James G's Avatar
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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    I've been reading this thread and finding myself in agreement with all sides, and at the same time disagreeing with all sides!
    This maybe because at a personal level, photography is the profound enjoyment of capturing or simply viewing images for their own sake.
    Sometimes I can imagine a 'story', other times I am stunned by detail, tone or vibrance, or maybe the impossibility of what I seem to be seeing. Other times it's memory that makes the image or memory and emotion together. Sometimes it's just the light and shade that does it for me.

    I try to capture images that I like or have meaning to me. I like images generated by other people particularly when they present me with something I either never thought about, or when the presentation shows me something in a way I never thought of, and I most like images where I am surprised or engaged, (emotionally, visually any which way you want to cut it.....)

    Photography, for me at least, is not defined by anything other than the medium itself, and the genius of the person taking the chance and risk to capture and present the image.

    I'm reminded of the PAD (Photograph a day) exercise we were challenged to undertake a couple of years back. The aim was simple, just take a picture that you were prepared to put on display, every day for a month. i.e no plan needed, no specific need to have a message, story, theme, technical edge etc.. just find and present the image you were happy to show others.

    The sheer variety of images that followed was phenomenal and I suspect, if analysed in the context of this discussion thread there were examples of every opinion so far expressed.

    James

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    Re: My pet peeve... "What story does your photo tell?"

    Quote Originally Posted by flyingSquirrel View Post
    Something that has been bugging me for a while now, and I finally decided to bring it up, is the old saying to the effect of "What is the story that your photo tells?" or "A photo must tell a story or it's not a good photo", etc.

    Basically, I think the thing that is most annoying to me about this is that it is way too general. I feel like a lot of people adhere to this adamantly and fervently, without really considering there may be cases where it doesn't apply. All of this is, of course, my personal opinion. I believe there are many types of photos and situations where it is legitimate to work within the "Tell a story" guideline. But I think there are at least as many cases where it is not necessary.

    The type of shots that come to mind which could easily fall outside the realm of the "story rule" would be photographs of wildlife, or some kind of graphically pleasing still life, among other things. Sure, it would be possible in some cases to tell a story about an animal's behavior, or interaction with another animal or environment. Then there are photos that are just "the animal" which can, IMO, be just as good or powerful of an image. Take a close up shot of a bird, with a blurred background. The subject is the bird. No story, just the bird. It might be nice if it were eating a berry, but if it's just sitting on a branch, it's not any less of a shot, I think. And I don't know if "Eating a berry" would really be a story, anyway. Let's say you photograph a fern leaf, close up, almost as a fine art piece perhaps. There really isn't a story, but the photo can be powerful and engaging.

    Then again, it just occurred to me that "telling a story" could be highly subjective. Some may take it literally, as in it has to explain exactly what was going on, whereas some may take it more liberally, as in, pretty much any photo tells a story inherently because it is capturing something and the viewer is then seeing it.

    I'm curious what your opinions on the matter are.
    Have you had many "pet peeves" lately. Or only on this matter ?

    Do you usually dwell on it or do you let it pass after a while?

    I ask because if you do, my reply to your question about people's opinion on it is let it pass.

    Perhaps the time will come when you chance upon a picture which may have a story to tell.

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