Storytelling & A Sense of Purpose

Despite the fact that I use the word “story” quite often when describing why I’m passionate about documenting families, I don’t really think of myself as a storyteller. It’s only been over time that I’ve become comfortable with the term, and grown to embrace it despite its current trendiness and overuse. Part of why I’ve never thought of myself as a storyteller in the past is because I’m not driven to photograph the way a moment looks for memory’s sake (even though I contradict that statement later in the book); I’m drawn to photograph a particular moment because of the emotion it evokes. And in my head, the idea of “story” has always been tied to what a moment looks like, rather than how it feels. But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can be an emotional storyteller just as much as a memory-driven one. And really, when you get to the heart of what "story" is, it's about finding deeper, universal themes.

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Why We Tell Stories

We are a culture of storytellers. Within every family, every child, and every moment are thousands of stories just waiting to be told. As a visual artist, your camera is how you tell that story. And I believe that the best stories are the ones you care about the most: the stories that happen on a daily basis, close to home, with family acting as the main characters.

And yet, despite how much we care about our families, we often sell ourselves short in the importance of documenting them. We worry about who will care, or what the point is, and we let moment after moment slip through our fingers. But despite all of that, we still yearn to hold on. The memories are the point for most of us, but we often forget that the point is also the story and the emotions. The truth is that the day-to-day stories are the most important ones. It’s where we start, and where humanity finds a common thread no matter where we are from. The love between mother and child, the partnership between parents, the joy of discovery that is so childlike and wonderful—those are themes that we all understand. It’s common ground—a place where in the universality of our day-to-day, our differences fade away.

That same sense of universality extends to all families, and even extends to potential clients. It can be a struggle to find clients who also believe that the day-to-day stories are the most important ones. You need to show them that while their iPhone or snapshots may do just fine day to day, it’s worth investing in a photographer to capture their every day in an artistic, professional way. When most people think of “family photography,” they think of coordinating outfits and non-candid moments in a studio or a pretty field. And while there is a time and a place for that, there is an equal time and place for the unscripted moments that happen in the places your clients feel the most comfortable: their own home. By selling yourself as a storyteller and backing up that claim, suddenly there is a sense of purpose given to these sessions, and to the images you’ll make for others.

A storyteller creates connection

In telling a unique story, you provide a chance for someone else to connect with the moment, to see the emotions present and identify them as how they feel, too. It’s vulnerable, it’s powerful, and it’s something you have access to on a regular basis. No one else knows your story the way you do, or the stories of the people you love. That is a huge advantage you have! Every storytelling photographer is seeking a way to be invited into the moment in order to capture the story. And you already have that level of constant, intimate access to your daily life.

It might seem like the stories that are closest to you are the ones that people are least likely to care about. But I think that they are the most important because they are the most overlooked. Our collective history, culture, and sense of humanity isn’t shaped at the summit table with powerful countries coming together, it’s shaped at the dinner table. The messy meals, the sticky fingers, the constant requests for milk. This is where we teach the next generation what matters, and give them a sense of foundation on which to build their own stories.

The whole idea of a story is just as personal and varied as each individual. Stories can be:

  • Fast-paced

  • Slow to unfold

  • Personal

  • Universal

  • Humorous

  • Dramatic

  • Poetic

  • Straightforward

  • Told in one act (or image)

  • Told over a series of images

But the thread that runs through all stories that are compelling is a sense of interest. And that is where we often get hung up when we’re talking about telling the story of everyday life. But if you cultivate a sense of curiosity about daily life, you’ll find that you garner your own sense of interest. And those feelings will spill over into your work, and others will find your stories interesting as well. To do that, you have to trust your own reasons for telling your story, or the story of other families, in the first place.

Your story is your story, and why you want to tell it is just as important to your personal vision as anything else that makes up your voice. The characters, settings, and plot that drives your particular family stories are unique to you, while at the same time being incredibly universal for us all. And that’s pretty empowering.

I'll be back in a few weeks talking about Literary Techniques and how you can translate them into visual storytelling techniques, but if you don't want to wait you can purchase your copy of my ebook for documentary family photographers, Stories of Home, right here.