I just finished reading a book about the power of story. Another one. I keep coming back to this topic because I can’t escape the feeling that photographers are missing something. Sure, we acknowledge that some of the best photographs tell, or imply, a story. But it usually ends there. I think we can do better.
The book, The Storytelling Animal, by Jonathan Gottschall, reinforces the notion that story is central to our lives. In a very real sense we live for story. It gives us meaning where there appears to be none. It gives us direction. Teaches us. Inspires us. And we are surrounded by it. Narratives are everywhere, not the least of which are advertisements. And then I read an article about the rise of Instagram and something clicked for me. The article was, in short, about photographers – so-called Instagrammers – making a decent living as storytellers for major brands. The click: it is not only the power to make a single photograph that makes this new brand of photographer successful but the power and intent to make a single narrative out of many of them. A narrative we want to be a part of. A story that touches some longing in us.
If your goal is to connect with an audience, and to engage with them on some level then the stronger your story, the deeper your connection will be.
You may not like Instagram. I, despite my initial desire not to, love it. But I got on there and found – to my horror- that the best of the people I follow there have me hooked. There’s something in their (well-curated) lives that I want. Their style. Their passion. Their adventures. Their well-chiselled abs and yoga poses on impossibly serene beaches. Why? Because they are telling me a story. And I am – you are – hard-wired for story.
The take-away for me is this, and it’s been building a while: if your goal is to connect with an audience, and to engage with them on some level then the stronger your story, the deeper your connection will be. What does it mean to be stronger? More vulnerable. More consistent. More tightly curated. I am not arguing for such a tightly edited version of your life that it’s inauthentic, quite the contrary: the more authentic the storytelling, the more authentic the connection. Take away what is fundamentally not the story.
What’s your story? And to whom do you tell this story? Does your portfolio help tell the story? Your social media feeds? What about your headshot? Let’s talk about photographer’s headshots as a good example, because – real estate agents aside – I don’t know that I’ve seen an industry so in need of a headshot reformation (forgive me if you are not a photographer, but I think you’ll get the point all the same.) What does your headshot say about you and the story you are telling? Is it just you with a camera? That’s not a story. Well maybe it is, but it’s not much of one. In a world where billions of people have a camera, there’s not much compelling about the fact that you have one too. Here’s a start: show me the story you are living. Show me your personality. In some photographers’ headshots the camera seems to be the main point and I could, forgive the expression, give a toss about your camera. Give me something to connect to.
Who are you? What’s the story you are living and the story you are telling? Who is your audience? Now take away everything that’s not part of that story, and tell the most passionately, tightly-edited, authentic, vulnerable version of that story. Will it work? Well that’s a bit of a ruthless question because for most of us, we just long to tell the story, results be dammed. But yes, it will. Because as hard-wired as we are to tell stories (though we have to learn to do it well), we’re hard-wired to receive them. We hunger for them. Every advertiser on the planet knows and leverages this.
When I was in grade 7 I found a poster on a wall for a man named Guru Dev. It said: “I will not teach you Yoga. I will teach you love. Love itself will teach you Yoga.” Thirty years later I still roll my eyes. But my version rings true, and less creepy, too: don’t try so hard to sell me your brand. Tell me your story. Your story itself will sell me your brand.
Whatever you’re trying to share with the world – your photography, writing, business idea, or clothing brand, don’t tell me what to think, do, or buy: tell me a story. You will, I hope, find my story all through this blog, and my photographs. I’m beginning to put some of my stories on Maptia.com, including the featured image for this post which came from an epic trip across Canada, and a story I called 22,000Km Home.
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Hi there David, thanks for sharing your stories with us through your writings, videos, and photography. Each of your photographs is a story. A story that has touched me personally for the past 5 years. This blog, I’ve read practically everything here, most of your printed books and ebooks, magazines, I have seven as well. Your life is inspiring, your story, is part of my life.
1) I have had this feeling for quite a long time that a photograph has some clear advantages over other mediums, like video. As a technology heavy society we have such limited time to ourselves and also to make an impression on others. I feel a powerful picture gives you a better opportunity to share with others than any video that they’re never going to have time to watch all the way through.
2) I’m big on brand and especially connecting to individual photographers. The more they share that is honest, the more I can feel good about the information they’re giving me. So many brands exist only to make money and I’ve been tricked too many times into buying something I’m disappointed in or that broke just after the warranty or return period expired. I need something to believe in. Especially when it comes to photographic learning, I have to believe in it before I spend thousands of hours practicing it. This is a lifelong investment we’re talking about.
I’ve also noticed that when individuals dilute their brand with many voices, it doesn’t work. I have yet to meet a photographic blog that does this successfully. I appreciate your direct connection. So much so that you have won me over and I am now a loyal customer of your brand, books written by you and by others that you publish. I hope that says enough about whether what you’re doing is working or not.
Thanks so much for this, Shawn. It’s high praise and I’m grateful, thank you!
Did you just teach us about your love? ….because I think it just taught me, itself, how to take better pics 😉
Dhanyavaad Guru Dave
Always look forward to your Maptia stories. Your stories and their presentation is a great match.
True to my experience. I’ve grown so tired of marketing appeals and everybody wanting a little piece of me. But what I’m drawn to are people who have a story, whose story becomes compelling as it resonates with my experience and hopes. Their authenticity and movement draw me toward the person I am becoming. Makes me grateful for their work. Very grateful.
Pictures are worth a thousand words. Images with a great (short) story behind them are worth much more. Even a sentence or two about a Facebook image or the story behind the scenes resonate with most of us. Often, less is more.
Few of us are “natural” writers, but a little practice and it becomes a joyful thing. An exercise that I would highly recommend to any photographer is to post a photo with a little story on a website, blog or Facebook page, every single day of the year. I started this two and a half years ago and it has become a joyful few minutes of every day. I may miss a few days once in awhile, but make it up on other days with more than one photo. Usually I keep a few extra pre-written posts in a folder, ready for publishing for those really busy days or “just don’t want to write” days.
So … after a thousand or so posts in the last couple of years, what are my take-aways?
– posting a photo from today is great, but I have especially enjoyed scouring old hard drives for some overlooked hidden gems. With more creative editing skills and advanced software, it is a joy to go back to the original raw files and polish up some diamonds in the rough.
– re-connecting with lots of folks from my past that also have stories to tell and places they’ve been. These inspire me to get out and live the precious life we have been given.
– surprised how many of my business clients … usually very technical folks like engineers, architects, planners, etc.. follow my personal FB page and tell me how a simple image and a short story are something that they connect to on a regular basis. Who would have thought so ….
Thanks, David, for all of your story telling and imagery over the years. I think it brings out the best in all of us.
Another wonderful post. Thanks for sharing your talents! Just jumped over to maptia and read your Venice Story. Special!!