Storytelling Through Documentary Photography


Storytelling Through Documentary Photography

Telling stories through images is a very powerful storytelling technique.  It is a method that transcends cultural barriers, language barriers, and that can be shared quickly and easily.  Yet, to be an effective story-teller a photographer must do more than simply observe and shoot.   To be effective as a visual storyteller there are several skills you should develop:

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  • Know The Plot: Every story has a plot and you need to know the specific story you are telling so that you know where to focus your camera.  If shooting a family, think narrowly.  For example, instead of telling the story of “Saturday Morning” focus on the individual stories that happen during the morning.  One story might be Mom waking up the kids, followed by the story of Dad making pancakes, and then the story of the kids getting dressed.  Thinking in terms of specific plots will help you get all of the shots for each story that you need.

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  • Capture the Setting: Every story takes place somewhere.  Get a wide-angle shot of where your story is set.   Including a person is a great way to show scale.  Include details unique to your setting to lend context.  For example, if telling a the story of a birth take photos of the machine monitoring the baby’s heartrate, the warming table ready for the baby, and the bands on Mom’s wrist.  These things are all unique to hospital births and will let the viewer know where the story is taking place in a much more interesting and visually appealing way that a simple snapshot of a “Maternity Ward” sign.

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  • Get to Know the Characters: Although you are likely documenting a story with multiple elements and characters, be sure to get at least one photo of each of main characters involved.  For a family, get a portrait of each family member.   This need not be a formal, posed portrait but an image showcasing each character in the story individually will help viewers connect with them more strongly, whether the viewer is an outsider or a person involved in the story looking back on the images years later.

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  • Use Viewpoints: When telling a story use multiple viewpoints to show how each person in the story you are telling is experiencing the event(s) you are portraying.  For example, if two people are talking to one another take a shot showing both of them engaged in conversation for context then take a photo over each of their shoulder’s to show how each person is responding to the other.

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  • Move Around: As you are photographing a story don’t use just the default position of standing in front of your subject: move around!  Get on your subject’s level weather that means crouching down on the floor or standing on a step-stool.  Shoot from above, shoot from below, shoot standing back, and shoot up close.  The more angles from which you photograph your story the more compelling you can make your final product.

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  • Include Details: Details help a viewer really feel as though they are in a place.  Little things, such as the way a boy prefers to sit or the candy placed on a table help to make a story complete.

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  • Consider Black and White: Black and white images naturally have a documentary feel to them and are timeless.  However, removing color from an image also helps tell a story by removing the distraction of color from the image.  When color is absent, it is easier for the viewer to focus on the main subject of the image.  This is particularly effective when an image shows strong emotion.

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Jamie Davis Smith

Jamie Davis Smith is a photographer and mother of four based in Washington, DC. She loves capturing everyday moments with her children. She can be reached at jdavissmith03@gmail.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/jamiedavissmithii
Twitter: @jamiedavissmith 
Instagram: @jamiedavissmith 

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