Why I Never Talk About 'Story' In Street Photography

Single frames don't have stories, i.e., a beginning, ,a middle, and an end.

There are way too many photographers talking about story, who proudly proclaim they are storytellers. You see it in their bio's. They talk about it incessantly in their YouTube videos. The way some of them talk, you'd think they're giving Stephen King a run for his money on the Top 10 list at the supermarket.

For street photographers, this phenomenon spread like a scourge through its member ranks long ago, sort of like an Ebola outbreak that killed off all the photographers and only left us with a cadre of immune storytellers. I joke that the challenge now is actually trying to find a photographer who's actually taking pictures, or self-identifying as a photographer at all.

There's a problem with many of these Storytellers-Formerly-Known-As-Photographers: They aren't telling stories with their single frames.


I'm going to write a caption for the above image of the boy and the kitten. It's a true "story", by the way.

"I was showing clients around in Mumbai for one of my workshops when we came across a mother and her four young children (out of frame). The mother was holding a young infant in her arms while the others were fawning over a kitten. My clients asked if they could take pictures of the mother, since it was a beautiful scene. Her children also posed with their mother because it was good fun and broke-up the monotony of the day, I'm sure. But the boy pictured above was torn - he really wanted to play with the kitten, so much so that he followed it away from the group of foreigners who were taking pictures of his family. In the shot above, he's looking back at all he was missing out on, but probably still happy with the decision he made to stick by the kitten's side."

So that's the caption. And yes, it's a story. But pretend you don't know the context. What's actually happening in the frame?

Herein lies the distinction I'd like to make. Single frames don't tell stories, not if we believe that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

It's about narrative

The problem with storytellers telling stories with single frames is that they're not actually telling stories through their pictures. They're at best, constructing a narrative.

Narrative in photography can simply be thought as how one chooses to tell a story visually. It's ideally expressed, frame by frame, in a cohesive manner that highlights three universally-accepted pillars of most stories told on Planet Earth: a beginning, middle, and end.

A single frame may solely represent one of these pillars but need not. Had I taken 12 shots of the sequence I described in my above caption, I may have chosen to end my story on that frame of the boy and the kitten. But in order to "tell" that story, I would have taken the necessary pictures highlighting the action. That process would represent visual storytelling.

I needn't take multiple frames like I'm doing documentary work or reportage of some kind. I simply would have written the above caption for my single frame and left it at that. Without the need to tell you that I'm a storyteller in the caption. Or without the need to issue grand proclamations in my Instagram profile. And I could do it all with just one frame - like a photographer.

My advice to all the storytellers out there is to learn what storytelling is, learn about narrative, before you claim it as a some sort of sub-occupation. Because telling a story about an image isn't the same thing as visually telling a story.

What's wrong with just being a photographer, anyway?

It surprises me at what lengths photographers go to in order to distance themselves from being what they actually are - photographers.

I see a great many photographers self-identifying in their bio's as storytellers, artists, visual storytellers, wandering nomads, gypsies, world travellers, adventurers, explorers, etc.

One has to wonder what the salaries are for these professions. I'd like to know how much the hourly wage is of a gypsy, for instance? Or how much does a more skilled gypsy charge for a wedding shoot? And are wandering nomads in town long enough to hire for some portraits?

Whatever people want to call themselves or self-identify as, is fine with me. It's just a shame that so many people don't want to take ownership of such a wonderful craft and occupation.

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