A quick list of tips from my direct field experience about telling a story with photography.
Those who approach photography sooner or later feel the desire to tell something with a camera. Often with just one photo, starting to do what is now called street photography, with the possibility in some cases of using a single image for a whole story.
But personal evolution leads us to ask ourselves more, trying to emulate the steps of the great photographers published on famous magazines or who have in some way dictated rules that are overly abused today.
A first step in this direction is to choose a story dear to us where we see ourselves directly involved. You do not necessarily have to go to the other side of the world in the midst of remote endangered tribes but rather open your eyes and heart to what is happening around the corner of your home in everyday life.
There are stories everywhere, anytime.
Once you have identified yourself, you’ll probably face the painter’s white canvas syndrome and then here are some tips on how to deal with your new reportage idea.
Tell A Story
It may seem trivial but often you end a job lasted months without realizing that you have not completed almost anything. Take a pen and paper and write black on white about the purpose of your reportage. Before starting each photo session, reread it and never lose focus.
Put Your Emotions Aside
The story you choose to tell must represent you in some way, even only politically or spiritually, but it is always necessary to maintain an emotional detachment from the subject and the project itself. On the other hand, the risk of contaminate everything with strictly personal emotions can change the final result.
Oh wait! You just said keep your distance and now? In fact, but it’s also true that a certain degree of interaction with the environment and the subject is necessary to make feel the final beholder immersed in the story we are telling. For example, if our subject is a person and we are telling a private story, we should bear patience and avoid all possible comforts, trying to live the story in first person sleeping where the subject sleeps, eating with him, following him during his working day and welcoming the people with whom he interacts. Take public transport and walk alone in the area that he attends to understand the routes, places and habits of the locals.
Each one has a personal background and a unique experience; each photographer wants to tell a precise story. When these two souls meet halfway, then the story is brought to life. Be respectful of people along your way. Always.
No judgement, no prejudice, do not manipulate reality or let reality manipulate you. Create, instead, a sincere and deep connection with your subject, making him feel respected. Mutual respect is the most important key to any story.
Capture The Person’s Essence
You need to grab their real personality. Understanding the subject of our history is to understand a little bit ourselves and why we decided to start this adventure: both as a project to be told and as a photographer by definition. As soon as we enter in contact with him, every single photograph will make us understand why we are pursuing such a careful and focused photographic choice.
Documentary Means It Happens In Its Natural Environment
Understanding the environment where our subject lives and moves, produces, knows, works, studies, meets, is decisive for the success of the project itself. Invest a lot of time knowing what he loves to do and where, the places he goes the most, talking with locals to gather direct and indirect informations about the core of your story.
Last but not least is always good to portray our subject in its natural environment so as to give more information on the subject and his habits, tastes, life choices.
What To Shoot
Your subject is the main focus of your story. This is out of the question. But to tell the infinite facets of a person it is mandatory to pay attention to details around him or with which there are links and practical or emotional relationships.
Not every photo needs to show the face. Hands and body are important too and so are details like rings, earrings, necklaces, watches and clothes.
Remember to capture the details and scene setters.
Sometimes is good to be invisible and being patient and wait for the decisive moment can pay more than any other technique.
Find new angles by getting down real low or getting up real high, looking for natural frames for your subject. Use simple techniques and be focus on what’s going on around you and your subject.
Make use of an unobtrusive and small camera (I love my Leica rangefinders) and choose the best lens for your project (I usually go with 35mm and 50mm both ƒ1.4) to remain in stealth mode where necessary.
Two Extra Days
When you think you have finished the shooting time, I recommend you to come back to your subject for other two days. Spend extra time with him and try to bring home new and unexpected results knowing that all the necessary material has already been secured during the past shooting sessions. The photographs that will come out from these two extra days could amaze you for how they will fit together with all the material previously created, adding that extra bit of salt to the whole story.
Edit Your Photo Selection
Be selective. Give your photo essay a title, and add a concise written statement. Don’t over cook your images with too much editing but finds instead a uniform visual way of presenting the project.
When the work is done, make the first selection: take out photos that are too similar, not very relevant to the main story you have decided to tell, technical errors and so on. Then start looking at your pictures as a whole and unique story by scrolling them and trying to find the correct order to create the first draft of storytelling. Then proceed to make a second selection and again, again. Better fewer photos of the highest quality: a single lower quality photo lowers the perception of the whole work.
When you’re done, you need a good photo editor that can direct you with a professional selection. Otherwise, in a really amateur way, share your final selection with good circle of friends and try to understand which is the mood your pictures arouse in them.
I hope all this can be useful for your next project.