What’s the Story?

 It is said that the camera never lies.

In fact it can tell a cruel version of the truth all too clearly – think of all those images you will have seen of politicians, celebrities or other prominent people papped at their worst: asleep inappropriately, yawning, having a bad hair day, eating a bacon sandwich very badly, or worse.

The camera may not lie, but the processing can and often does. Faces are re-touched, body shape adjusted to improve a profile. And we do it too: removing a TV aerial, an errant telegraph pole and sometimes much more. We clone and crop things out.

A single image may possess more than one meaning, or may have inherent ambiguity, depending on a number of factors – the processing, the pre-conceptions of our viewers, their mood, that image’s association with other images taken on the same shoot, and the personal vision of the individual photographer. The meanings we attach to an image may be very different to what the original photographer intended.

Two by Two. Margate Sea Front

Two by Two. Margate Sea Front

And, that brings me to the heart of today’s topic. What’s the Story?

You go somewhere new, you capture images there. What’s in your mind as you walk about? What is the thinking behind the images you are taking? Perhaps you are just open-minded, shooting whatever comes to mind, or ensuring you photograph the key features. Are you seeking balance, or taking images to a pre-determined agenda? In short – what is the story you will be telling through the images you capture?

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Shoes in the window

We will all be very familiar with illustrated documentary articles about places, towns or cities, environmental or topical issues etc. Many of those will be commissioned. How does that process work? I’m assuming that an editorial team will have an article in mind: they determine its scope, the approach, the context, and finally the ‘angle’ or ‘agenda’ to be pursued. The article will tell a story, a particular story. A photographer will be appointed to work to that agenda. And he will shoot accordingly: seeking out images that conform to the agenda, ignoring those that don’t.

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Beach walkers

The camera never lies, but the images it produces collectively can create a totally false, or one-sided impression of a place or an issue. Images can be employed purely to bolster, add substance to, or give credence to a chosen angle or agenda.

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Station steps

I recently visited Margate, a seaside town in SE England. Margate is a place where it is so easy to shoot images that give a false impression of this town that is a little down at heel and undergoing a process of re-vitalization. The Turner Contemporary gallery is at the forefront of Margate’s regeneration (click the link to see my post about it). More importantly read a post published today over on LensScaper (click here to view) that endeavours to look at Margate in a balanced way while presenting two very distinct visual stories about this resort.

On the terrace of Turner Contemporary

On the terrace of Turner Contemporary

It occurs to me that we – who choose to place our images in the public domain – need to be conscious of the need sometimes to present balanced views of places we visit and photograph. We have no way of knowing who will find our images and what they may think of them.

All the images in this post were taken in Margate – but what stories are they telling?

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6 thoughts on “What’s the Story?

  1. I think this very much depends on where you are coming from as a photographer. There is beauty in dereliction and decay so a photographer creating artistic images, may choose to seek out images that might give an unbalanced or false impression but as long as one is clear about one’s intention, I think that’s OK.. If one is setting out to document, then so far as I’m concerned, the photographer has a clear responsibility to present a balanced view but I fear, as you suggest here Andy, even in documentary, there is often a preconceived agenda and pictures will be chosen accordingly. Integrity I guess is at the heart of it all.

    • Thanks for commenting Adrian. I too take a lot of images that relate to street art, dereliction and similar themes – but I tend to use them singly and they are never a part of an ‘essay’ or ‘document’ that might denigrate a specific location. My concerns are related to documentary articles (the worst examples of this style are to be found in newspapers, although images seldom play a major part in them), that have an ‘agenda’. Telling only one side of a story is I think dishonest and manipulative.

  2. Interesting post, Andy. I don’t consider myself a storyteller. I like the idea of the viewer making whatever they will of an image and I don’t worry about the impression a photo makes. Every one looks at things with different eyes and attitudes and that a photographer can’t control. Most of the time an image is so streight forward that it conveys a meaning that is (almost) universal. Other times, like many abstract images, the meaning is, if there is any, dependent on the viewer entirely. I like the documentary style of shooting where the purpose is, hopefully, to provide an unbiased view of an object or event. Even so, the viewer will interpret it as he will.

  3. I think one of the basic choices is: journalist, or storyteller? It makes a difference. It’s not unlike the conundrum faced by the writer who edges into memoir, and has to begin considering issues of fact and truth. If I’m writing about a confrontation between my grandmother and grandfather, I may not have a clue what day it actually occurred, yet have the experience etched in mind to the smallest detail. If I were to get the fact of the day, month, or year wrong, would the story be any less truthful? I don’t think so.

    In the Paris Review, in 1956, William Faulkner said, “Poets are almost always wrong about facts. That’s because they are not really interested in facts: only in truth.” And, at one point, he asked, rhetorically, “What do facts and truth have to do with one another?” Granted, his perspective is a special one, but not entirely unique. When the family sits around the holiday table and discusses the year Mom hit Dad over the head with the turkey leg, everyone is going to have a slightly different memory of what happened. As Lawrence Durrell noted in the “Alexandria Quartet,” everything depends on our position in time and space. A step to the right or the left, and the entire view is altered.

    • I should have replied before to your comment, Linda – somehow it slipped through the net. Interesting observations. I often wonder how autobiographies get written. My initial thought is often that my memory of childhood must be seriously deficient! But one has to understand it as a kind of storytelling. I think there is one additional genre of writer to add to your choice of journalist and storyteller; and that extra one is the ‘documenter’. That is the person who attempts to tell the truth without bias. Journalists I think have acquired a bad press because so often they are working for an owner (especially true in newspapers) that has a particular political persuasion and also an agenda to pursue. Documenters are a rare breed but they do exist, and I hope they will continue to tell it how it is.

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