“The human mind was shaped for stories so it could be shaped by stories.”

—Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

We live in a volatile world, beset by an overflow of images. The pace is high, the competition fierce and the profession “photographer” as we used to know it is becoming redundant. Today, technological developments have enabled anyone to make “good” photos and using the Internet, anyone can easily find an audience for whatever they desire to publish.

The pessimists proclaim “the death of photography” — the optimist sees this as a chance for reinvention.

As photography loosens its dependence on its status as a recording device, Fred Ritchin (Dean at the ICP) reminds us of the need and possibility for photography to expand. He calls upon practitioners to push harder against the long-held constraints and use this time of uncertainty to experiment more boldly.

From my view, perhaps it is time to leave most breaking news stories to citizen journalists and the loopiest aesthetic experimentations to the happy amateurs. Let the tech-savvy get lost in VR while the rest of the world collects its “likes” on social media…As for the professional (documentary) photographer, let them focus more on their authorship and engage in meaningful storytelling that explains, questions and challenges who we are and how we look at our surroundings.

Stories teach us and shape us as human beings. We need stories to make sense of the world, ourselves and understand how the two relate to each other. Ironically, as Jonathan Gottschall tells us, research has shown that fictional stories are more effective in changing beliefs than non-fictional ones—this being true since we are more critical and skeptical when faced with non-fiction.

From the series ”Welcome to Donetsk” © Anastasia Taylor-Lind

This means that in order for a story to have impact, it needs to reach us on an emotional level: the story should cast us under its spell and take us beyond momentary sympathy towards a place of deeper empathy. For photojournalists, fiction is often understood as their antithesis, but perhaps they could learn a thing or two from the former in terms of narrative structures and how to create engaging stories.

How often have we seen photographers struggling at the most basic level of storytelling: too much repetition, too many details, no flow, balance or focus, no clear storylines? Many of them would benefit from studying the elements of classical narrative structures—identifiable beginnings, middles and endings, strong plot, characters and story arcs. As with any skill, once storytelling has been mastered, one can start experimenting and breaking the rules.

The essence of good storytelling is to make the viewer/reader relate. The story should feel like a discovery, more like a shared secret than a stated, boring fact. The storyteller should lure us in and absorb us.

Once the storyteller can make us feel deeply connected with the issue presented, then we are hooked. We will confront the trouble alongside the protagonists and battle with them to overcome it.

One storyteller who understands the need for the viewer to relate to the subject is Anastasia Taylor-Lind. In her project “Welcome to Donetsk,” she evokes deep empathy by enabling us to relate personally to the victims killed in the War in Donbass. She did so by sending out picturesque postcards from a pre-war Donetsk and on each postcard she wrote a name, date and the place where a victim was killed. Using the familiar medium of the postcard, she confronted the receiver with the death of one individual, not a number or group.

From the series ”Welcome to Donetsk” © Anastasia Taylor-Lind

Personally, when I came home and found the name of Emlel Mahler on my doormat, the war in Ukraine literally and emotionally entered my house. The force was far different than what would be possible through a TV screen or a slideshow on the web—it had turned the war into something personal.

In his book Bending the Frame, Ritchin writes: “A photograph that strives to provide a single answer intimates its own manipulation; one that provokes questions, whether intentionally or not, better allows the viewer to engage with the subject and become, in a sense, the photographer’s collaborator in his or her inquiry.” To not present facts but to take the viewer on a journey where he/she feels that they are partaking in a discovery is a great way of engaging an audience.

For example, in his ongoing project, War Sand, Donald Weber is inviting the viewer to become a collaborator in his research. He does not present answers but connects us to the past by letting us explore D-Day with him through microphotography, staged scenes and landscapes. His fascination rubs off and through the rediscovery of Omaha beach and he makes us reflect beyond the subject as he raises questions about the construction of history and memory.

A piece of sand from the beaches of D-Day, photographed using an electron microscope. © Donald Weber

Photography can be a powerful tool to incite emotions, to help us reflect and educate us. This can be achieved purely through photography or by using a combination of elements (video, text, infographic) assembled in a wide variety of outputs: slideshow, book, interactive presentation, or installation.

I believe the right form and structure should be revealed through the story itself, not set in advance. With all the current possibilities out there, it’s important not to get lost in the form but to focus even more on content in order to stand out and contribute to the worldwide conversation in a meaningful way.

Photojournalist Dominic Nahr put it very well during a recent talk at Les Rencontres d’Arles when he stated: “Yes, we are over-flooded by images today—but content, content, content is what is important…our job is not to take images but to tell important stories.”

—Rebecca Simons

Rebecca Simons is an independent photography educator, editor and curator. She is currently involved in two upcoming workshops on storytelling:
How to Become a Heck of a Storyteller with Teun van der Heijden and Donald Weber and Visual Storytelling and Beyond with Anastasia Taylor-Lind. More of her work can be found on her personal website.

Next autumn she is teaming up with Viewbook to launch a program called “Transformations,” which is aiming to explore changes in photography, support in-depth visual storytelling and increase visibility for outstanding photographers.