Telling stories with one photo

‘Every picture tells a story’. It’s an old cliche. In fact, it’s a proverb – apparently. But whatever the origin of that phrase one thing is for sure, some photos tell stories better than others. A picture can quite obviously tell a story but as a photographer it should surely be more about making sure you can give the viewer some idea of the story that is being told. Or, as the case with the image from which the excerpt above is taken, leaving the door open for a number of possible stories to be read into the picture by the viewer.

We’ll get to the full image below but here’s the story of how I came to take it, which is one story connected to this image:

In December of 2007, just a couple of months after we moved permanently to Japan, my wife and I went on a press trip to Hokkaido, organised by the G8 Preparation Committee. We toured the various venues which would be used for the Summit and visited the general locale of south-east Hokkaido; Hakodate, Otaru, Niseko and Sapporo to name a few spots.

We’d ended up in Otaru for the night after a wonderful interesting visit to the Nikka Whiksy Distillery, which is nearby to the town. Otaru has a lot of charm, helped the night we were there by a substantial fall of snow: wonderful streets, lovely canal area. After the official business of the evening was done, myself and the missus ventured out for a wander in the snow. Me armed with D300 and tripod. Hiromi armed with warm coat and hip-flask. We had a wonderful wintry walk around town, snapping a few good shots and generally getting rather wet and cold.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped off at a Lawson convenience store and picked up some beer, cup-ramen [the thick, Hokkaido pork soup noodle variety]. After finishing the beer and our noodles, I craned myself out of the window for a cheeky smoke.

The scene below is what greeted my eyes when I looked down [click the pic for a big version]

My first thought was, naturally, to grab the camera and get a shot. In this case, the D300 and my 80-200mm f/2.8 ED-IF.

After shooting the shot, I spent the rest of my cigarette’s worth of time outside the window wondering what could have occurred in the car-park below me to have made such a scene.

  • The driver had obviously had a few goes at parking the car.
  • Why did the footprints go under the car?
  • Did the tracks running across the front of the car mark a previous foray farther up the car park?

Such a simple scene with quite a few potential stories to tell.

Next time you’re out with your camera, see if you can find a scene that – in one shot – you can transmit a story with. Think of the following words before and whilst you shoot it:

  • inference
  • suggestion
  • mystery

Think of how you can frame the shot to best transmit the idea you want to. Pay attention to where you put your main subject in the frame, to give it as much energy in the composition as possible.

Think about lines, curves, colour and exposure as ways to lead the eyes of your viewer around your shot.

There is also another approach to this shot, something I have done on workshops with students: the Hemingway Six Word Story.

Ernest Hemingway once said his best work was a story he wrote in just six words: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’

It’s the inference, the suggestion and the mystery here that make those six words so full of energy. Why were the shoes never worn? Did the baby die? Did the parents die and never get to give the shoes to the baby?

Just as Hemingway told a story with six words, you can do it with six words and a photo. What would those words be for the picture above?

Snowy tarmac. Two attempts. Nailed it….

…could be one version of events.

Here’s a few more at The Guardian newspaper website, written by authors challenged to tell a story in just six words.

Whichever way you decide to tell your story, whether it’s a picture and no words or one photo and six words, give it a try next time you’re out with your camera.

If you get something good, email it in to me and I will post it up.

Have fun!

About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

We also welcome submissions of photos and articles for this site, so please get in touch via our contact page. Thanks.

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