What’s in a photograph?

This week’s mission starts with some advice for new photographers. I have very little experience taking photos, and even on my phone I’m hesitant. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by all of the photos that flood my social media feeds in the past few years, and I find that enjoying a moment feels more pure to me when I’m not capturing it with a camera. Memorable moments require immersion, and having phones out to capture every moment somehow makes me enjoy it less.

However, when it comes to constructing narratives, a photo can tell beautiful stories. My only experience in this realm was working for the school newspaper in high school. I covered political events, and the photos were candid. My style as a reporter was to try to get a thorough sense of what was going on and capture it in words and photography in as honest a way as I could. The story really dictated the kinds of photos I was looking to take, but our newspaper didn’t incorporate many of the most useful tactics for telling a visual story. I usually didn’t intend on certain moods or feelings in my pictures until I arrived at the event and spent some time talking with people. My favorite thing about being a reporter was being able to attend events and really participate on the ground while also being an observer. Once I felt a certain atmosphere or mood, I assumed that the pictures I took would reflect that in a straightforward way. But – it wasn’t that simple, as many of the photos didn’t seem to fit with the tone of the writing. There were some missing pieces.

Admittedly, I was intimidated by this week’s mission because of my lack of experience in photographic storytelling. After reading David Campbell’s article, Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story? , and getting some tips from some fellow agents in Becoming a better photographer” I felt like I had enough to think about to start my journey. I tried to think about these articles in the context of taking photos for a story I was writing (which is a luxury as a journalist, since the photography teams are usually separate from the reporters).

I was fascinated by the assertion that many photographic stories don’t necessarily need characters. I never stopped to think about this in my previous work, because almost every time there were characters to focus on. Reflecting back on those stories, I do feel that some of the photos would have been more effective if the focus was not on a person or a crowd. It reminds me of the effectiveness of political cartoons. While there are characters, much of the time the characters aren’t individuals but rather symbolic archetypes. Most of the tips I read about were new to me, and I found them helpful and thought provoking.

There were four tips that stood out to me the most:

  1. Pay attention to the moment: This one stood out to me because I was never instructed on how to do this. As a photographer and reporter I was expected to capture history, but there were so many amazing moments that I missed. As I gained more experience, I got better at predicting when standout moments would occur. This was invaluable.
  2. Look to the light: The photos that I took were black and white, so some might think that light wasn’t as important. On the contrary, light is especially important for black and white photos, at least from my own experience. It was incredibly difficult to see the immediate impact of different lighting without several trips to the dark room. My strategy was to take several photos at once, and then see the impact all at once after the dark room. Even with phone cameras now, you get that feedback almost instantly – and I think that makes the photographer even more powerful in many ways.
  3. Better contrast makes better stories: I wish I would have gotten to explore thematic contrast more in my work at the newspaper. Most of the stories were news focused, so I didn’t see as much room for juxtaposition. I plan to use this to make social commentary in my photos this week, perhaps even a satire.
  4. Change my perspective by changing yours: So many photos would be interpreted drastically differently with a slight change in photographical perspective. A slight change in the angle could show a dictator towering over the people, or it could give the readers a taste of the perspective from a speaker’s vantage point. There are lots of interesting things to play with here.

At first, I’m going to try and improve my ability to change perspectives in my photos, as well as using contrast. After my first few assignments, I hope to capture a significant moment in my weekly mission. I have much to think about each step of the way.

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