A thousand words: visual storytelling today
A picture is worth a thousand words. Or so the saying goes. Photography’s ability to tell a coherent story is a topic that has been explored across time and genres for as long as the medium’s existence. Sam Edmond reassesses this age-old adage at a time of iPhones, deep fakes, and climate justice.
In 1948, at the age of only 30-years-old, photojournalist W. Eugene Smith produced a series of images for Life magazine titled, Country Doctor. The work followed the life and practice of Dr Ernest Ceriani – a 24-hour GP who catered to the medical needs of 2,000 people in the small community of Kremmling, Colorado. While important at the time for highlighting the national shortage of country doctors and the effect this had on remote American communities, today it is seen as ground-breaking within the world of photojournalism. Smith – the eponymous man behind the title of one of photojournalism’s now most coveted prizes – had, through this work, founded the photo essay; photography’s first attempt at telling a coherent story almost solely through photographs.
Since then, the ability for still images to expound on events or a phenomenon that span a period of time has been an idea thoroughly explored – at times culminating in some of the most prescient works of documentary, and at other points falling flat on its face for an ability to convey a story accurately. But since 1948 the landscape of editorial publication has changed dramatically. And hence, largely through the impact of technology, methods for both the dissemination and consumption of photographs and stories have evolved and been drastically altered. We rely on photographs for our ability to understand events more now than ever before. So, among an array of social media platforms, VR technology, and considering the most important topics to humanity at this point in time, how has the idea of visual storytelling changed? Is the photo essay still as pertinent now as ever? Or in a post-truth era, have we abandoned faith in the photograph altogether?
True to form
Across various genres of photography, a wide spectrum of attempts to either maintain or completely shun Smith’s initial notion of the photo essay has been witnessed. While photojournalism has clenched tightly onto this M.O. and simply made an attempt to transpose it onto digital dissemination methods, other areas have looked more critically at its relevance in the 21st century. Perhaps the area in which the most amount of experimentation has been embarked upon in this regard is the genre of photography that most often finds itself at the avant-garde: documentary. No stranger to this is Melbourne-based photographer Sarah Pannell, whose work has been widely celebrated for its diversity in approach to subject matter – often spanning book publications, video, and rigorous social media experimentation.
Pannell’s most recent solo publication, Tabriz to Shiraz, conveys a snapshot of everyday life across Iran after the photographer spent a month couch-surfing between the nation’s capital and a string of smaller cities. But while the resultant body of work has been largely consumed as a book, Pannell says that other forms of dissemination were important in the larger process of creating and talking about her journey. “I’ve been finding myself increasingly interested in utilising video alongside my photography. I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with iPhone video over the past few years, particularly in Iran, and I enjoy editing together small compilation videos which enable the viewer a richer view of my experiences while I am shooting new projects and embedding myself in new places,” says Pannell. “As far as my documentary photography work goes, I am always pushing myself to try different approaches to visual storytelling practices and choose the appropriate outputs depending on the subject. Instagram is a really important tool for me, like so many people, and I’ve found it to be a great platform to experiment with video work that supports and strengthens my photography, especially when it comes to producing in print.”
While Pannell emphasises the importance of social media platforms like Instagram for augmenting her work in this way, she maintains that this doesn’t negate the importance of traditional aspects of bookmaking – especially for a project that is attempting to tell the story of an exotic and mysterious land. “It is all in the sequencing and when it comes to a formal object like a photo-book – the pace and design are integral to how you present the narrative and establish the tone of the book. With Tabriz to Shiraz, I wanted to create something that was playful, yet respectful and genuine in terms of imagery and mood,” Pannell explains. “While it is traditional in its structure, the full-bleed front cover image has an air of mystery to it which is designed to invite the viewer in and encourage curiosity about a place that might for many, particularly in the West, seem quite inaccessible.”
In addition to a broadened acceptance of the methods for disseminating visual storytelling, Sydney-based photographer and member of The Pool Collective, Juliet Taylor says that a “creative revolution” in photography is widening the scope of subject matter whose stories we consider worthy of telling. “The digital era has made the world so much smaller, accessible, and instant. There is a lot of great imagery out there. I think there is pressure toward creating innovative work that hasn’t been seen before, and really defining your own visual language to be separated from the masses,” she says. “It’s exciting to see this shift in new talent communicating stories – whether it’s capturing the war in Syria or a story of a girl feeding her cat – both can equally be as powerful.” A sentiment that Taylor’s own work has largely played into after her photograph conveying the lonesome and banal lifestyle of a cab driver in California took out the 2019 Head On Portrait Prize, giving evidence to the idea that as banality is embraced, visual storytelling lies (literally) around every corner. “I was working on a motion project whilst in Pioneertown, California. The taxi pulled up and I just started shooting,” recalls Taylor. “I find capturing a story unawares is more compelling and authentic. But there is always an exception.”
A changing landscape
While genres like documentary photography and portraiture have arguably been at the forefront of embracing new methodology for visual storytelling, photojournalism – a typically rather dogmatic profession – has slowly warmed to looking outside the Life model of the photo essay. In an interesting extension of the philanthropic element to Smith’s seminal work, the last few years has seen the most hard-hitting tiers of photojournalism driving much of this innovation as photographers covering increasingly dire situations in war zones, poverty stricken areas of the Western world, and other crises have had to turn to creative approaches for eliciting a response from an audience essentially numbed by a plethora of such coverage.
Renée C. Byer is a Pulitzer Prize-winning documentary photojournalist and Emmy nominated multimedia field producer best known for her in-depth work focusing on “the disadvantaged and those who otherwise would not be heard.” In her explorations of such issues across both photographs and video, Byer’s work has implemented innovative approaches to storytelling, most recently with an interactive travelling exhibition of her work, Living on a Dollar a Day. The exhibition, which relies on a mobile app in tandem with traditional prints, brings visual storytelling to the viewer’s own device and augments the consumption experience through technology. “[Through the app], you can hear me, my voice speaking about certain photographs, and the situation as I made the photographs,” says Byer. “So, it's quite engaging, and technology is helping bridge the gap of empathy.”
With both Pulitzer Prizes and Emmy nominations under her belt across still and motion projects, Byer sports enough accolades to be considered a bona fide expert in visual storytelling. But even a communicator of her calibre is quick to draw attention to the impact of technology in the way that audiences expect to consume visual information. As devices become smarter and social media feeds more curated, visual journalists need to become smarter, she says, encompassing varied skill sets and anticipating consumption habits that reflect the modern world. And this doesn’t mean just learning to shoot video.
“A lot of people simply don’t have a lot of time. They don't have a lot of time to watch these long-form videos, that outlets are creating, during the day,” says Byer. “So, if you think about the power of the still photo story – maybe five to ten photographs that are displayed beautifully within the text of an online story – you realise that it’s the immediacy of it that serves the reader. It's so quick, so fast. You just look at this picture, this picture, this picture, this picture, and within five minutes you're like, wow, wow. You know, readers are not going to watch a video on their lunch break at their desks, but they can scroll through a gallery or a photo story very quickly. So, my case for trying to find a way to build the revenue on still images would be that they are immediate, relevant, and compelling, and that they can be viewed very quickly.”
Echoing this sentiment is climate change photojournalist Ashley Crowther. The Australian Asia-based photographer focuses almost solely on telling stories of climate refugees and changing landscapes across
the globe – an effort that proves increasingly difficult for journalists speaking about such a precarious and highly debated topic. It’s for this reason that Crowther says respecting science and telling uniquely human stories within the topic of climate change is becoming the most prescient way of transcending ‘fake news’. “Respect the facts, know the science, and link the human story to the environment. It’s easy to get carried away indirectly attributing something to, say, climate change when it’s just part of the puzzle,” says Crowther. “I think it’s always good to remember if
we can’t link our human story to the problem, people will find it difficult to care. As sad as it is, we’ve been looking at images of melting ice and stranded polar bears for decades, and nothing has changed.”
In addition to his advice for approaching visual telling of climate change stories, Crowther says his residence in a foreign continent has given him an acute awareness of working within the cultural framework of his subjects – an issue that has plagued photojournalism since its inception as ‘parachute-in’ news photographers have often attempted to surmise complex social issues within the space of 48 hours in a country. But as Crowther explains, as the gaze of news outlets continues to increasingly include ‘climate change victims’ within their headlines, elements of this issue are being spoken about more loudly. “Being a foreigner, you want to portray people from other countries with dignity and not follow common and, at times, misconceived stereotypes such
as continuously portraying people as victims,” he says. “But, sometimes you don’t get that choice, and sometimes people don’t have agency, and they are, to be put simply, victims of climate changes effects.”
Scene in the right light
Perhaps coming off the back of the photo essay’s conception within the context of photojournalism, the term ‘visual storytelling’ has more often than not become synonymous with such news-oriented genres of photography. But other sub-disciplines of the medium certainly undertake the task, perhaps with less severity of consequences, in various forms.
Sydney-based wedding photographer Alex Marks’ documentation of big days around the country has for more than a decade told the visual stories of eloping couples in neutral tones and whimsical light. And perhaps most interestingly, the task of the wedding photographer is often under-appreciated in this respect. In almost exact opposition to the M.O. of photojournalism, perhaps what is most peculiar about the idea of visual storytelling in the context of wedding photography is that it is the only genre of photography where professionals are asked to craft the same story from different circumstances over and over. And with such a precise vision for how their big day should look, Marks says that he relies on a suite of technical aspects to achieve a very premeditated result. “Things happen so quickly and you’re basically tasked with capturing moments across the length of the day. So, I’m often using an 85mm and shallow depth of field can really help to isolate undesirable parts of the scene from the subject,” says Marks. “Weddings are really interesting because there’s definitely no chance to redo the scene, or move anyone, or ask, ‘Could you just cry again and do it over here, and put the drink down’.”
Getting the story straight
Evidently, since Smith’s seminal work in establishing the idea of visual storytelling, a suite of influences on how photographs are made and disseminated has drastically affected the relevance of the photo essay, the ways in which most people choose to consume visual stories, and hence the approach that photographers must take when attempting to tell them. While some techniques, like sequencing and book-making – as seen in Sarah Pannell’s Tabriz to Shiraz – have stood the test of time (perhaps because of their insulation from technology), photojournalists like Renée Byer have had to drastically reassess how best to reach an audience whose image consumption methods change with the rise and fall of various mobile apps. In light of this, when attempting to make sense of visual storytelling in the age of fake news and deep fakes, it would seem as important as ever to consider why the story is being told in the first place. As Crowther offers: “I think if your intentions are good and you’re working ethically and for the right reasons, as opposed to exploiting suffering for profit or fame, then you should be at peace with yourself and your work. If some people can’t accept that, it says more about them than you.”
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