Telling a Story

Holy water jug

Conventional wisdom nowadays is that a good image should tell a story. Really? What does that mean? Can a single, static image actually tell a story? I’m not completely convinced. Let’s explore this.


It is well understood that people learn and remember better from a story than by memorizing lists of facts or rules. That is one reason the Bible is mainly a collection of stories.

In civilizations where writing was late to develop, or where the literacy rate was very low, their records of their history were passed down by oral tradition – storytelling. The keepers of the stories were usually very respected members of the tribe.

Even in “more developed” Europe, storytellers were important through the dark ages until sometime into the Renaissance. Most of the population was completely illiterate. Even what we call “fairy tales” were very important stories and traditions.


Books are an obvious story telling vehicle. They have lots of time and space to develop characters, set up complex plots, give the protagonist room to make lots of mistakes and bad decisions and go through many trials before getting it together and finally resolving the conflict.

Books have been written for thousands of years. The art of creating stories for print has been studied and practiced for all that time and it is well developed now. They have become excellent at grabbing and holding our interest.

You can go to school (or read a book!) to learn the process of character and plot development or to improve your vocabulary. You can’t go to school to learn to be a good author. That is still art. And rightly so.


Films – I continue to use the archaic term – are a completely different story telling medium than books. That is why, even starting with a great book, a screenwriter must be employed to create the film version. The story telling process is very different.

Films are visual and the story must be told by the live actors “living out” the plot. Obviously there are exceptions, but this is the typical approach. A film is also a time-based medium. The story must unfold within about 1.5 – 2 hours of clock time.

But filmmakers have become very adept at engaging us with drama, magic, pathos, wonder, sadness, significance, aspiration. There is a great range of possibility and new creations are coming out every day to amaze us..

Static 2D image

Time, motion, character development, plot development, conflict resolution – these things are much harder to do in a single, static image. These older media get to engage their audience for an hour or more to days (depending on your reading rate). With an image I have 2 conflicting goals: capture my audience’s interest to make them spend some time on my image, and have enough lasting interest to make them want a copy on their wall to see every day. Perhaps I have to think of “story” differently in a 2D image.

In a 2D image, nothing is actually moving. No action over time is possible. Little or no character development can happen. It is very hard to show a before-during-after sequence.

The type of “story” that seems possible to bring to you in a picture is a “moment in time”. I can show you something in a particular state at this instant. I have to leave it to you to imagine the setting or previous events or how the future may unfold. If I do a good job as a story teller, that may be possible.

One of the advantages of that is that it brings you into the process. You have to participate in the interpretation. You get to, in effect, write the story for yourself. What happened to get the scene to this state? What would happen if you could push “play” and continue it? Can you imagine yourself there? Would you want to?


Let me side track for a bit to tell you a pet peeve of mine.

Many of the influencers in the photography media preach the mantra that you have to tell a story with your pictures. Whether it is travel photography or environmental activism or landscape or portraits, what we hear is that we have to tell a story.

Hardly any of these pundits help us by explaining how to do it. Usually they will just show one of their images and congratulate themselves for illustrating a great story. Weak, unhelpful, and intimidating. I can think of one writer/photographer right now who mostly makes images of the American desert. He writes passionately about the meaning and story he tries to bring to his images. But then when he illustrates it with a specific image, I often look at it and kind of say “huh?”. There wasn’t a story there for me or deep meaning. It was just a scene. It may be nice to look at, but it is not a story to me.

Can we tell a story with a 2D image?

Can it be done? Yes. But it is seldom what I think of as a story. As I said, maybe I need to change me definition of what a story is in this case.

Photojournalism or street photography is attuned to story telling. It is generally understood that presenting a “decisive moment” is more important that creating a technically perfect image. I agree, for those genre.

In all cases, I believe any photographer should know why they made an image. What was it that called them? What were they trying to present to their audience? We can often call this the “story” of the image.

The problem is that this story is often only known to the artist. It may not be apparent to the viewer at all. At best, the viewer may be able to create their own story around a good image. This works.

And is it OK that the “story” may just be that I considered this scene beautiful or uplifting or interesting? YES! Much of the established modern art world rejects beauty as a valid subject. They are wrong and I feel sorry for them. What a bleak world to live in.

Tell your story your way

So I recommend that you to go out and make images that call to you. They may not have deep meaning to a wide audience or be praised as “meaningful”. That’s OK. Always be able to express for yourself why you took an image. Practice that. After all, you are the only one who absolutely has to love your images.

Meaning and story may come for you more with time and experience. Or may not. It depends on how you see the world and what kind of “story” you want to tell. If beauty or whimsy or abstraction call you, go with what you feel. If it passes the test for you and you love it, what more can you ask?

If the story is a secret to just you, that is fine as long as the image also stands on its own as interesting. Then your audience can also participate by creating a story of their own.

Every time I make an image, in a sense I am telling a story to my viewer. It is good for me to be more aware of the way they perceive the story.

Why Hang It On Our Wall?

Mountain cascade

We’re all on a journey. Life is a journey, not a destination. Having guides or at least signposts on the journey helps us to hold to our path. The Images we choose to feature on our walls are representative of our signposts.

I’m not going as deep as the introduction sounds. This is not an offer to be your guide and I am not hanging out a “Life Coach” sign. My point here is that images are one of our guides in our journey. And they are ones we get to choose.

Through recorded history, and even earlier, people have made, commissioned, kept, and wanted to see images. There is something inherent in our makeup that makes these valuable to us. Why is that?

I think images help us in various ways and those ways evolve with time and maturity.. We are alone on our journey, but we are all together. Our journey is unique, but very similar to each of the billions of people who have come before. Pictures can help remind us that we are not a freak. We are a lot like everyone else. They can represent goals we aspire to or document moments we want to remember. Images on our walls can calm us down or make us think. Our moods are influenced by our environment. Our selection of pictures to surround ourselves with is a significant tailoring of that environment.

Telling a story

OK, that’s pretty dense. Let’s unpack it some. People tell me that pictures tell a story, or at least good ones should. I’m not sure that is as true as many artists think. To me a good image gives us the raw material we use to construct our own story. Story is at the heart of our being. We are so tuned to think in stories that when we see a picture we often construct a story for it in our mind. Where was it taken? What were they doing? Why was this happening? What does it mean? I’m sure most of us have found ourselves looking at an image that intrigues us and asking these questions.

The old saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. This isn’t literally true, of course. But a picture can capture a whole story for us. The story we construct for ourselves for an image can have great symbolism and a deep meaning. Or it could just take us to a happy place and give us peace when we consider it. Looking at an image on our wall that we see every day brings us into that story we have made in an instant.

Why have pictures

What are we looking for, then? There are many reasons to surround ourselves with images. Some that come to mind:

  • Remembering friends or relatives. We want to be reminded of those who are important to us. Pictures can keep them close to us, even take us back to significant events or times. The pictures are there even after they are gone.
  • Remember a peak event in our life. Maybe it is a wedding or starting a business or graduating from college. Whatever it is, looking at the picture brings back the memory of the event.
  • Pictures can feed our aspirational needs. Maybe we love the sea and fill our walls with sea images. If we love to hike or bike we might have grand landscapes showing the areas we want to be in. Maybe it is a mountain we plan to climb or a river we want to kayak. No matter what it is, we tend to surround ourselves with images that give us a warm feeling.
  • Pictures can make us think. Sometimes surreal or abstract images serve to stimulate our imagination. Or, depending on your makeup, it may be an image with lots of detail or strong composition. They can give us a little shot of energy when we glance at them.
  • Pictures can just be calming. Many people appreciate images that are peaceful, pastoral. This often involves nature or natural things. Because it gives us a sense of connectedness to our environment. It reminds us of the natural world out there that we don’t see enough of.
  • Pictures can also give us a sense of continuity. Historical subjects or old things can give us a sense of being part of a longer story. One day I will write on wabi-sari. That’s a Japanese philosophy that reveres things that age with character. But it is a lot more than that. It requires more space than I have here.

So why do we choose pictures to hang on our wall? It varies with each individual and their situation in life at the time. But in general, good images give us a sense of place and a continuity with the longer story of humanity. Choose your environment carefully.