Is photography Story Telling? / by Deen Schroeder

Photography is not storytelling and we should stop pretending that it is. Can a picture really be worth a thousand words in the age of quick burst selfies on the latest smartphone? Can a single photograph truly convey a story?  Have we forgotten what storytelling actually is?

Photography is a wonderful medium because it can convey information in a visceral way and can evoke real emotional reactions from the viewer. Nothing is more moving for me than the incredible images that come from War Photographers who dive head first into the most dangerous spaces in the world to illuminate the atrocities of the human condition. The images may be incredibly moving but can any single one of those images convey a story? No.

Let me explain why I think photography, in its simplest form, is not storytelling.

The basics of any story include a ‘start’, ‘middle’ and an ‘end’… the three components to every single narrative arc. A photograph cannot include these three elements because a photograph is a frozen moment in time and does not give any context beyond that frame. The context that I am referring to here is time; photographs do not show the progression of time.

There are areas of photography that do explore narratives in a more meaningful ways. They are often referred to as photo essays. Publications such as LIFE were famous for this type of storytelling. The narrative is brought to life through a sequential series of photographs captured over time; following world events, famous individuals or cultural phenomena.

The ability to tell stories is one of the oldest means of conveying information from one person to another. A moment cannot tell a story and I wonder if people refer to their photography as storytelling to give it more significance than it deserves. Why do so many people do this? Why did I?

I did it because I didn’t fully appreciate what storytelling actually meant. I also felt like I needed the crutch of storytelling to give my photography some degree of gravitas. It was superficial and inauthentic.   

A single moment can carry significant emotional weight. A decisive moment captured by a photographer can be meaningful and move you to tears or raise you to the heights of joy. The moment is simply that; a powerful moment. The moment is not the story and the story is not the moment.

We need to be conscious of is how we attach our own stories to the images we see. The photographer’s intention may be very different to your interpretation of an image and its message. This is another reason why photography, in essence, is not storytelling – novelists create characters and scenarios with the aims of pushing the characters forward through the narrative itself. A single photograph cannot do this but it can show you the decisive moment in all its majesty.

We are in a golden age of storytelling and it is largely due to the power of digital platforms. Photography has been completely democratized and decentralized. Contemporary society is better recorded than any other time in our history as a species. As photographers, I believe that we have a responsibility to tell better stories through the photos we take.

A photograph cannot tell a story, but photographs can.