When I was little I watched a movie about an evil king who punished people not by hanging, imprisoning, impaling or anything physical, but by brainwashing them into his loyal subjects. He enlisted the help of a scientist who built a brainwashing machine and then rounded up all the disloyal people and brainwashed them. The story was very interesting, some of the dialog rhymed and the movie was overall fantastic (the director was a lifetime achievement Oscar winner). What I most remember was this one scene where the king brags that he doesn’t imprison, impale, burn or punish physically. He has only one punishment for disloyalty. The dialog is in rhyme but he doesn’t complete it. He doesn’t need to, because the audience knows exactly what the next line is. If you are watching the movie, you end up completing the rhyme for the king. Now, although I watched this movie a long time ago, when I was a child, this particular part impressed me very much and I remember it vividly. I found it very interesting how I knew the next line and felt compelled to say it although it was never said on screen. That experience has never left me. The director (in this case producer and screenplay writer as well) had managed to engage me in such a way that I was no longer just watching the movie. I was participating. That is the hallmark of a great story.
There are two kinds of photos—those that tell a story and those that don’t. Sure there are grand landscapes (grandscapes?) and macros and birds. There are still life photos and architecture photos. There are photos of fences and flowers and horses and streets. Photos that show great depth of field and photos that showcase swirly or creamy bokeh. But unless the photo tells a story, it is less likely to leave a mark. Why? Well, when someone sees a picture it automatically elicits a verbal response in their mind. The viewer tries to label it. (This is also why pictures are superior to words, because a word leaves only a verbal code, logogen, in the memory but a picture leaves two codes: visual: imagen, and verbal.) A landscape, or a flower doesn’t actively involve the viewer. The viewer views, perhaps forms a label and moves on. But when there is a story in the picture, the viewer has to stop, look at it and decipher the story. This works even better if the photo does not already have a label. It forces the viewer to create one for themselves. Viewing the photo is no longer a passive activity. It becomes a participatory activity. The image provides you the clue and invites you to fill in the gap with a story, with your story. The moment the viewer does that, it is no longer just another image, it becomes an image with a story. The image is yours, the story is theirs. And it is a different story for every viewer. This participation, and the intimacy born of this participation, cannot be created if your photo doesn’t have a story. Sometimes some landscapes may evoke an emotional participation from you: towering mountains, wide open spaces… something truly majestic. But by and large most landscapes are not so evocative. The three images in this post are arranged from less human involvement to more. If you view them actively, that is if you try to “read” them you will find you are looking at the last image for longer than the other two. You might find the flowers pretty, the tandem bike might make you wonder: who left it there? Are they staying in that hotel in the background? But the two people in the last image is going to make you think. Are they mother and child? Are they teacher and student? What is their relationship? What is the door for? What is the child looking at? What is the woman saying to the boy? Is he listening? This brings us to the final point in this post. In order to make pictures with stories you have to have some human element in them. We are, after all, human. And our greatest interest lies in our fellow beings (save for hermits). As such the best stories are of essence about humans. In fact, actual stories—the ones written in words, not pictures—are all about humans. Therefore, to tell a story, you have to have a human element in your photo. If there are only a few people in the photos against a landscape or inanimate backdrop, the action in the photo can be less intense. But if there are other humans in the photo, the focus has to be on the most intense action, for that has the strongest story.
What is the story in your picture?