Is Photography Storytelling?

“A picture paints a thousand words.” It’s one of the most well known and often used English language idioms, it’s etymology traced to the early 20th century, and sentiments similar even further back. The originally accredited quote was in reference to graphics in general; however, with the growth in popularity of photography in the last century, the sentiment has become nearly synonymous with photo-graphics.

And what exactly does that sentiment mean? “It refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image or that an image of a subject conveys its meaning or essence more effectively than a description does.” That’s according to Wikipedia.

There’s a density to a photo’s description, exponentially more so than a full sentence or even paragraph, and there’s a directness in it’s presentation (or perhaps better put, it’s re-presentation). The immediacy and forthrightness in its graphical accuracy allows a photograph a shortcut to our emotional circuit board, often circumventing our cognitive reasoning. Without question, a photograph can have power—to grab our attention, to connect to our feelings, and to move us into action.

Cameron’s change of heart appears to have been inspired by the now-iconic photographsQuartz

After all, it wasn’t an article that convinced European nations to shift their policies pertaining to Syrian refugees; it was a photo, one of a drowned 3 year old boy washed ashore on the beach which went viral in 2015, spreading across social and traditional media. As reported by Quartz, British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to accept thousands more refugees due to a “change of heart … inspired by the now-iconic photographs.”

“A picture paints a thousand words.” It’s a concise way of conveying that density, that directness, that oomph that so many, like the British PM, have felt upon seeing an extraordinary photo. But do all those implied words add up to something more? Sentences, paragraphs and pages of description with unparalleled persuasiveness and the power to move heads of state.

But do they add up to a story?

“Every Picture Tells A Story” / An advertisement for Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills in The Sun (Sydney), Friday, March 24th, 1916

Visual Storytelling

As the above early 19th century advertisement reveals, alongside the development of the idea that a photo was equal to lots of text was that it also “told a story.” The sentiment seemingly being that a photo, so richly packed with visual information, could be examined closely to determine some larger, more robust circumstance or diagnosis—in the ad’s case, “of irritable, nervous people who need Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills” (a name that really rolls off the tongue).

Despite being in the air over the course of the last century, this photos-as-stories sentiment has particularly come into vogue in the last few years, breathed life into by the collective aspiration of marketers to fancy themselves as storytellers and their communications, at their highest and most refined form, as storytelling. And what, in an internet-connected, social media-dominated landscape, has the principle activity of marketers become? Image making. In our Instagram-driven age, the role of marketer has become nearly synonymous with photographer; if storytelling is the artful objective on the pedestal, then de facto, the marketographer’s image creations must “tell stories.”

Certainly, it should be noted that the technological blurring occurring from the combination in form of both video recording and photo making in one device has some bearing in all of this: filmmakers and photographers now often have the same camera in hand. But, without a doubt, I’m sure you’ve seen or heard someone describe themselves as a “visual storyteller” who is simply doing photography, the same as ever, and not filmmaking.

Can I say something that may now be, gasp, a little controversial? (Of course, because it’s my blog.) Drums please!

Photos do not tell stories. Photographers are not storytellers.

(Non) Narrative

To insist that photography is narrative is to say that photos offer answers in chronology in the same way that movies do—notice the way we watch a movie trailer to be teased, then the movie itself to see what happens. It’s actually quite the opposite with photography: powerful photos create questions, not answers. Mystery, not comprehension. And it is often that unease, that unknowing, that is so emotionally affecting, so stop-you-in-your-tracks compelling. A great photo should crunch you with it’s grip, not convince you with its plot.

A great photo should crunch you with it’s grip, not convince you with its plot.C.P. Plunkett

The photographer Mark Meyer, in a blog post titled “Storytelling Photography Considered Harmful” (a strongly recommended read on this topic), writes: “A narrative is a sequence of events unfolding over time, but a photograph is a single, almost imperceptibly small slice removed from the timeline, frozen for our consideration. If you were looking for the least narrative medium ever conceived, you would be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than photography.” [Emphasis mine]

As Mark points out, by it’s very technological nature, photography is pure, non-durative description. For handheld photos, it’s ill-advised to use a shutter speed longer than 1/60th … per second. The vast majority, then, of these so-called stories we view took less than 1% of a second to happen. A photo is quite literally freezing time and space—the phrase is decisive moments for a reason. This photographic moment-freezing is in contrast to movies and stage plays, both of which rely on a course of events that occur over time (scene, after scene, after scene), strung together by a plot, delivering a middle, beginning and end.

How could a photo, less than the blink of an eye, possibly contain a beginning, middle and end? A still isn’t even a scene; it’s not even the length of a word said in a scene. A photo might have the density of a thousand words, but it doesn’t depict the duration of even one uttered aloud.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious—because its seems to explain and prove the point here—movies are literally made up of a bunch of photos (and by a bunch, try 24 frames per second multiplied by 2 hours). Imagine trying to understand the story of a flip book by only looking at one page of the illustration. Put that way, its sounds absurd to equate the accomplishments of the book with any individual page that constitutes it. And yet we have “visual storyteller” in bios on Instagram profiles of filter-happy influence peddlers—ahem, photographers.

Flip book: certified way to tell a story … and propose! / Chicago-based Flipbook artist Ben Zurawski of The Flippist

Narrative is a succession of instances; a photo isolates just one, it’s power derived from compression, not succession. Polar opposites. So to insist that photos similarly tell “stories” like movies, plays and novels is to bend the meaning of the word past its breaking point, beyond recognition and usefulness. At the end of his post, Mark concludes with a recommended rebuttal to anyone insisting on the storytelling of a photo: have them walk you through the plot.

A photo’s power is derived from compression, not succession.C.P. Plunkett

Losing The Plot

But that’s precisely the problem: we’re insisting on imbuing the photo with a plot, working backward from the conviction that photos tell stories. This sets up the viewer to infer via her own imagination what that story is, often imagining what is not revealed by the photo itself.

Why this is problematic is that it makes the photograph’s subjective value less about its actual merits, and more about the imaginative powers of the viewer. The photo becomes a sort of creative brief combined with Rorschach test: not a finished object to be encountered, but a prompt to be expanded per the viewer’s imagination and life experiences. In an unsettling swap, this relocates the authorship of the photograph from the camera wielder to the feed scroller.

Furthermore, thinking of photos as stories isn’t just problematic from a viewing standpoint, it’s unproductive from a photographer’s standpoint when shooting. If you’re looking for a good story unfolding in front of you on the street, you’re looking for an event that often won’t translate via a frozen frame. And vice versa, there are non-events (or at least seemingly non-dramatic ones) on the street that only are transformed into the photographic when frozen, their artfulness revealed precisely because of their arrangement outside of time from a particular perspective.

Maybe you’ve read the advice, particular to street photographers, to distance yourself from your photos by waiting for a lengthy time before reviewing them. The goal is to wait long enough for the memory and emotion of the photo-taking experience to fade so that you can dispassionately evaluate which photos are good. As the photographer, you know—wait for it—the story around the photo. It’s exactly the thing about the photo you need to disregard.

If photos mustn’t “tell stories,” then the photographer roaming the streets is unburdened from looking for compelling happenings, and simply for what is the end result—great moments.


As much as a photo is about complex, literal description—what’s on the page—a photo is just as much, if not more so, about what is withheld from that description. A moment can only be “pregnant” if, by definition, it doesn’t show the birth.

Art is a lie that makes us realize the truthPicasso

It strikes me that people have begun using story when more precisely they mean suggestion. Admittedly, photographs, by their very nature of freezing time, suggest action (and perhaps some sort of basic plot) both backward and forward in time. Suggest. It is in that ambiguity that lies the flexibility to, well … lie.

No doubt, photographers as artists have continued the tradition of art as a means of acquiring the truth; that is to say, using artistic expression to contemplate, explore and reveal the highest knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in. The idea that fictional art—made up science-fiction novels like 1984 and movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey—could reveal universal and fundamental truths is to concede that doing so doesn’t necessitate facts or real life.

Pablo Picasso is quoted as saying, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand.”

It begs to parse the meaning of truth. One narrative-minded definition is “what actually happened.” The descriptive-minded definition is “accurate” (in the way that an arrow “flies true” toward its target). This distinction is what Richard Avedon so succinctly and eloquently explained when he said: “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”

This difference between description and narrative, and accuracy and truth, seems something that the late, great Garry Winogrand had arrived at himself, much earlier than the current vogue of photography as visual storytelling. In this recorded interview, Garry pushes back against the apparent setup of photos as stories.

Quoted from the video: “I don’t have to have any storytelling responsibility to what I’m photographing. I have a responsibility to describe well. The fact that photographs, they’re mute. They don’t have any narrative ability. You know what something looks like, but you don’t know what’s happening. A piece of time and space is well described, but not what is happening. There isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of them. They do not tell stories. They show you what something looks like—to a camera. The minute you relate this thing to what was photographed, it’s a lie. It’s two dimensional, it’s the illusion of literal description. The thing has to be complete in the frame, whether you have that narrative information or not. It’s a picture problem. It’s part of what makes things interesting.”

To know what something looks like in a moment is not to know what happened for any duration before or after that moment. And to capture the way something looks—or rather to arrange the way something looks in frame—is a very different “problem” than capturing what occurred, a very different “responsibility.” In a way, what Garry is saying is that the photographer has no responsibility to tell the narrative-minded “truth” in the frame, even if such a thing could be a accomplished. Taking a photo is always the business of capturing a very well-described non-truth—a very accurate lie.

Taking a photo is always the business of capturing a very well-described non-truth—a very accurate lie.C.P. Plunkett

Painting With Light

This question of defining a photographer’s responsibility—the duty to deal with, in other words—is paramount, because it orients the photographer in her pursuit and serves to guide her attendant modus operandi. To treat it as a narrative pursuit is to orient the photographer as a recorder concerned with capturing what happened, giving her the duty to deposit an authentic copy, something that inherently narrows the scope of the content. However, to define the duty of the photographer as a composer and her pursuit a descriptive one is to free her from addressing the happening, instead focusing her on the arrangement—the composition of a detailed illusion.

The underlying issue, perhaps, is historically what art form do you think is a fore bearer of photography, and therefore what tradition it continues and to which it contributes. As storytelling, it links photos to the telling of tales, to the history of writers of books, stage plays and songs. As non-durative composition, it ties photos to the graphic arts, to the tradition of drawers, painters, even sculptors, who although work with an extra dimension, use their hands and tools to deliver a static, detailed object which occupies and depicts a singular time and space.

Appropriating the storyteller mantel may be in vogue among corporate advertisers and Instagram influencers alike (whoops, aren’t they the same?), but the sacrifices for photography—and for its practitioners uninterested in sounding relevant to shill pseudo-authentic product placement—aren’t worth the fashionability in doing so. As photographers, we are not scripters, but sketchers. Not writers, but painters! It’s noteworthy that, before taking up photography, Winogrand and his famed predecessor Henri Cartier-Bresson both first studied painting.


Which brings us back to the original idiom, “A picture paints a thousand words.” Indeed, photos do paint, powerfully so, potently distilling complex notions into razor-sharp spear tips—their sharpness nothing to do with telling, all to do with showing. There’s a reason the common classroom activity is called show and tell—notice that necessary “and.” As photographers, let’s focus our pursuits on the former, not the latter. The truth depends on it.

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