You’re (Probably) Not a “Visual Story Teller” — Aka a Meaningless Phrase

I see this phrase a lot. "Visual Story Teller". It's often used to describe what kind of photographer someone is.

So, serious question::

What the hell does that mean? Do you even understand what that phrase means? Have you considered what it means to be a story teller, or what a 'visual story teller' may entail?

I usually see this phrase on Instagram, and on occasion it surfaces on people's bio or 'about' sections. It'll go (often stylized something like:)

'San Diego. 24. Cat Lover. Visual Story Teller.'

It's just...really a phrase that needs to go away. I get it, it's popular, people don't know what it even means and therefore attribute skill or personality based upon it (maybe?) It's honestly a confusing mess of a phrase to describe your work, so let's break down WHY you are (probably) not a Visual Story Teller:

1) A photograph is, by definition, a "visual story". 

A photo is a still moment in time. May it be in print or on screen or projected on your living room wall...it's a moment in time. It's medium, its language...its very essence IS a visual representation of the world. So, yes, you may indeed be a visual story teller. But so is everyone else who takes a photo. 

I mean, really, think about it. Mitch Hedberg (comedian) said it best:

" One time, this guy handed me a picture of him, he said "Here's a picture of me when I was younger." Every picture is of you when you were younger. "Here's a picture of me when I'm older." "You son-of-a-bitch! How'd you pull that off? Lemme see that camera... What's it look like? ""

Same idea, slightly different principle. A photo is a moment in time (and always in the past). So claiming your a visual story teller—like you are doing something special with your camera—is dubious. I mean, every camera in existence can tell a story through visuals. I mean, sure, an operator needs to press the button, but the qualifications for that is pretty slim.

2) To insinuate you are able to tell a story through your photo is to hold your audience hostage.

Let me explain. We've established that a photograph is a moment in time (and always in the past...thanks Mitch.) And that photograph is always a representation of the world. No matter the quality of the photo or the lens you use, it will always be a false representation of the world. The romanticized idea of the camera is that it freezes a moment in time forever...but in reality, you're only freezing a representation of what that moment was. This is to say a photograph isn't really what was happening. And, yes, I realize this sounds foolish ( I mean, its obvious), but there's a point to it.

So, let's set the scene. You're a photographer. Wedding. Couple is about to kiss. Sun is setting. Doves are released into the air. Smiles, everywhere. You take a photo.

~*Snap!*~

You've captured this moment in time. a representation of the moment. It is never going to truly be 'the moment', but instead of a kind of replication of reality. A waterdowned version of reality, if you will. 

So, we have our photo. "The Kiss", we'll call it. We've printed it out, framed it, and hand it to the lovely couple. 

They smile, knowing you captured a unique moment. A moment only they uniquely experienced. They can finally see what their friends and family saw on that day.

So, the problem with considering yourself a Visual Story Teller is that youre also assuming that you have the power to convey total meaning through a single photograph. This is...difficult. 

Take Gregory Crewdson for example

 This tells a story. Yours do too, but probably not as effectively as this. 

This tells a story. Yours do too, but probably not as effectively as this. 

This is a man who has mastered the still image. He is a brilliant guy and an amazing artist. He's using large budget productions (that are very similar to film sets) to achieve most of his photographs. He's able to tell a story through what we usually think of as a very 'cinematic' aesthetic. Crewdson's work is best summed as being nostalgic, but from a memory that is just out of reach.

Going into how he achieves this is a whole different post...but lets use Crewdson as the gold standard for "Visual Story Tellers". 

But again, lets not forget: a photo, by definition, is a visual story. So while Crewdson is a visual story teller...so is your mom, your neighbor, or anyone else whose ever taken a photo.

The important thing to remember—even with Crewdson's work—is that the story is ambiguous. In a way, that's what makes it so great. Can you tell what the story is in the above story? I bet you can't. And my story is different than your story. It's open to SO many discussions on what the story is, and that's...kind of awesome. I mean, really, how many photographers can do that?? Seriously, it's pretty amazing. For an art form that takes a fairly objective look at the world, Crewdson makes SUCH subjective pieces that make you just question and analyze every detail.

But enough about Crewdson. The idea is that the audience derives meaning from it. It's what makes US the story tellers. The visual (photograph) is the medium, but ultimately the viewer becomes the story teller. They are the ones that decide the fate of your image, not you. You have no voice in this as you form the bridge sharing a moment you experienced to a bystander. I mean, you're basically handing someone a temporary time machine in 2D form. It's up to them to experience it.

Ok, so lets rewind back to that photo we took. "The Kiss". Now give that photo to a random person on the street. What are they going to think of it? Maybe they hate your composition. Maybe they hate weddings. Perhaps they dislike the doves (they do poop a lot). Their definition and "story" behind the photo is radically different than the couple in "The Kiss". That's fine. This is a passive medium. While, yes, you could be the "story teller" if you told everyone what was happening in "The Kiss", but how many times is that going to happen? Even in art galleries, you find that many visitors dont read the artist statements or descriptions. What makes your photo any different? (plus, if you're such a good "visual story teller" you shouldn't need a description, right?)

So, in a way, you're holding your audience hostage by making the "Visual Story Teller" claim. You're saying you are SO good at photography that you can tell a story that by all means is the viewers choice. They're SUPPOSE to be the ones telling the story and connecting the dots. Yes, you composed it, exposed it, and perhaps made creative decisions to maybe lead to a particular narrative....but to say that you are actually telling the story is to rob the audience of their ability to make their own decisions. 

In that sense, yes, ok, you could argue you are a "visual story teller" because you are choosing to have certain elements here or there. Or your focus lands here, not there. Or you pick this model, that outfit, etc. Sure, ok, fine. Ya got me!...I mean, you didn't. Fact of the matter is that the medium in itself still means every photo does this. It will always tell a story visually. So, I mean, sure....you could say you are a "better visual story teller than the competition", but that doesn't really quite catch the attention of your Instagram Followers, does it? 

3) The greatest strength in photography is the ability to objectively represent a singular moment. 

Ok, so this bit gets complicated. The idea is that the act of photography is...I don't want to call it stealing, because that's a bit off..."borrowing", we'll call it that: Photography borrows a moment in time and artificially reproduces it. The downside to this is that it becomes wildly difficult to really tell a story in one frame of a photo.

With text, captions, graphic design, or a collection of photos, it's VERY easy to tell a story. Think of your favorite newspaper headlines. Nixon Resigns. Titan Sinks. Man On  The Moon. Those photos by themselves are OK at best (i.e, they don't "Tell a story") but with the aid of texts or a plethora of photos you can actually form a pretty good visual narrative. 

Singular photos in their purest forms have a VERY hard time doing this.

Ok—I see this argument coming—maybe you call yourself a "Visual Story Teller" because you can tell a story in a series of images. Well, firstly: great! That's awesome. My first point still stands, and that's that this is just a product of the medium, and shouldn't be flaunted as your go-to description of yourself. Secondly, it seems to dilute your work if you need to have a lot of photos to represent a singular idea or get a point across. It's like...a chef adding more and more butter to his pastries to make them taste better. Great, awesome, this cake is delicious! But you could have done it better without 10 sticks of butter (gross exaggeration; you get the idea). 

So i'll concede a tiny bit: photos can be told through stories really well, and I do think some special individuals can claim they are visual story tellers. Ya got me! 

However, I think this phrase of "visual story teller" should really be reserved for people who work in cinema, theatre, television, or video games. These are all extremely diverse mediums that feature sound, spoken word, captions, interactive elements and most importantly....fluidity. They are NOT the photograph: They are not a singular moment in time. Instead, they are a fully realized and carefully constructed narrative. They're a million photos strung together to form a moving piece of art.

If we think of language as the basis of story telling (which we should), we realize that we need a lot of words to make a sentence. To tell a story. There's the urban legend of Earnest Hemingway writing this six word story: 

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn"

Can you one up Hemingway? Can you do it in 5 words? 3? How about one? Think of a still image as 1 word, and your favorite movie as 50 thousand words. That's visual story telling vs. "Visual story telling".

These other mediums afford the creator to create a much deeper narrative and actually allows them to tell a story (even if only in part) through visuals. They actually understand story structure and how to write because...well, they're medium depends on it. Their career is about telling stories.

Some photographers rely on 'telling stories too': chiefly, I think of wedding photographers (lets not forget our photo, "The Kiss".) However, I think in this sense we think of photographers more as reporters: we are trying to convey the moment that is happening in reality. We aren't so much crafting a narrative like a director would, we are trying to present the world around us in a visually aesthetic way. 

Does that make sense? A photographer tends to represent the world through their view of what is good/bad. "The photographers eye" we usually call it. It's what allows them to decide what to / what to not take a photo of. 

There are undoubtably moments when the photographers execution of a photo intersects with what we may consider great story telling, but I think this generally is more of an attribution of skill and artistic ability.

The "photographer's eye" or their aesthetic ability is the main factor in bridging the gap between mediocrity and "Visual Story Telling" apparently, right? I'd argue that what we interpret as story telling is really just a dedication to the craft of visual design: someone who understands the technical aspects of photography mixed with basic elements of art and design: a focus on colors, repetition, framing, balance, tones, contrast, etc. There's story telling, yes, but there's also just "following fundamentals of art", but I guess that doesn't sell too well...

4) Great art is subjective. This is held in opposition to the fundamental nature of photography, which is one of objective realism. 

My biggest pet peeve is actually this idea that being a visual story teller should be something to be proud of. So, story telling is indeed something to be proud of. In the realms of cinema, for example, being able to tell a story in an hour or two slot is maybe what makes your film a hit or not. People like good stories! When stories get confusing or boring or are written badly, the movie suffers.

Story Telling has a very different meaning depending on if we're looking at active or passive art. I'd consider active art: paintings, photography, drawings, and sculpture. I'd consider passive art: Cinema, TV, and theatre. 

In the passive arts, it is generally quite easy to "get it". The meaning of the art is quite often presented in such a way that it is easy to understand. We are given the pieces and are able to usually connect the dots. Being a form of approachable art (and by this I mean: commercial), it is paramount to the success of passive arts to be understandable. Passive art this is difficult to understand will become a commercial failure and may even be considered a lesser form of art due to the inability for the idea to get across. In these passive arts, your audience is held hostage, but thats ok: you're there to guide them. You take command. You tell them what to feel, how to feel, and when to feel it. The audience is giving you this responsibility. 

In contrast, active arts ironically involve much less participation. There is no soundtrack, narrator, or actors on stage. Instead of the audience relinquishing their control it is instead important for them to find meaning in the work. The viewer may be at home in their PJ's viewing your art on their phone or they could be at the cities fanciest galleries. Either way, the artist is posed with quite the difficult task: make a piece of art so good that it can speak for itself. In the active arts, these pieces will not speak for themselves, so you need to create something that the audience is able to understand on their own terms. Unlike passive arts, the success of the piece isn't contingent on the viewer understanding the piece easily. Instead (you guessed it!) the success is attributed to the opposite: its often seen as successful if it actually becomes difficult to ascertain meaning behind the piece.

Ok, so, lots of words there. Basically: Good photo is arguably one where the meaning is ambiguous. Bad photo is one where the meaning is easy to understand. Good movie could be one where the meaning is easy to understand. Bad movie could be one where meaning is hard to understand. Passive viewer. Active viewer. Passive art. Active art.

Let's go back to our friend Gregory Crewdson (Greg? Can I just call him 'Greg?):

 What does it mean? 

What does it mean? 

This piece is....my god. I don't know what to think. AND THATS WHAT MAKES IT SO GOOD, UGH. It's...I mean, shit, it's so good. Seriously, it's just so awesome, there are so many little details. And I don't know what to think. It's forcing me to make a meaning, it puts me on my toes...it's the ultimate version of an active art: it really makes the viewer take the art into their own hands. They are the active participant in this journey. They are told nothing but come out with answers on their own. 

This is good fucking art.

So the downside of calling yourself a story teller is that your saying you can tell a story in your photo, right? But thats bad! You're showing all of your cards at the poker table. You are equipping your audience with all the tools needed to decipher your photos apparently, but this goes against what a good story is for the active arts. No! Bad! Make your audience work towards finding a meaning. This is the definition of great photography. This is why you so SO SO SO SO many pieces in a Modern Art Museum and think, "Huh, this is weird". Or you don't understand why its there. That's arguably a great point of the art: it's to question art...its to make you think. It is not a passive activity like a Hollywood movie. It's art that has ascended to stage of greatness not because it clearly tells a story, but rather in spite of it. It can be heavily ambiguous...but thats ok.

A Visual Story Teller should be frowned upon....have your audience make the story out for themselves. You don't deserve that title. Hell, you shouldn't want that title. To say you can tell stories through photos seems incredibly lame compared to someone who can take a photo SO damn good that the viewer makes their own story on their own will. Again, by definition every photo tells a story. So how fucking great is it to say you could take one of the most objective mediums of art and turn it into something incredibly subjective? To claim the throne of "Visual Story Teller" is to claim one of mediocrity, of the bare minimum required of an artist. 

And...ok, so I guess maybe thats ok? Going back to the wedding photographer ("The Kiss"), maybe that is a good way to describe who you are. A Visual Story Teller. Because to say so would be to say you will capture the wedding as objectively and stale as possible—to freeze the moments around you for preservation and strict documentation. You do want to a tell a story. It's boring, fairly bland, and all the set pieces are set in front of you...but you do do a hell of a job reporting everything around you.

The Conclusion 

So in conclusion...I realize most people use the phrase ingeniously, but I do think it needs to be said. Don't be a "visual story teller". That's a nothing phrase. Be someone who can take objective reality and turn it into a subjective piece of art. Yes, it is incredibly hard to do. That's OK. Not everyone will be a 'Greg' Crewdson. But striving for excellence should always be your goal...and if your goal does include using the phrase "visual story teller" at least back it up— if I can write a multi page blog post on this, you should be able to defend your title too.