Using Storytelling to Redefine Traditional Photography

For years, traditional photography has concerned itself with perfectly posed portraiture.

However, that approach is now being redefined by the art of storytelling.

As much as modern audiences appreciate a pretty portrait, they’re far more likely to engage with images that convey a narrative.

It doesn’t end there, because photographers are also using their art to redefine the art and imagery of storytelling.

The results from the most talented photographers are images that not only delight the eye, they capture viewers’ imaginations too.

storytelling to redefine traditional photography

From Portraits To Stories

Giles Duley is a photographer whose career illustrates how storytelling is redefining traditional photography.

He spent a successful 10 years photographing bands, concerts, and fashion, but that changed when he took a break and did a stint as a care worker.

Speaking to Fold Magazine, Duley said that during his break, he realized that important stories were being left untold.

The people and situations he encountered made such an impression that he left music and fashion photography behind.

Instead, he shifted his focus to documentary photography in conflict and post-conflict zones.

Photo by Megan McClain

Seeing Things Differently

Asked about his creative process as a visual storyteller as opposed to a traditional photographer, Duley explained the difference between the two approaches.

He said that, when photographing bands, he visualized the shoot in his head, and inevitably would have to change his plan after arriving on location.

This developed his skill of being able to adapt to various circumstances; a skill he now draws on when taking photos that tell stories.

Having learned to be flexible in his approach, Duley said that he prepares for projects by trying to understand the location’s visual landscape and the stories that played out there.

Part of this prep sees him exploring images that other photographers have taken in the same place. This helps him to avoid taking clichéd shots that don’t offer a new narrative.

When Duley’s on location, he tries to remain open-minded regarding the imagery. He says that this has been his biggest challenge.

While switching from band and fashion to documentary photography may seem a leap, it’s the transition from portraiture to storytelling that’s really tested his limits.

He realized that the only way that he could become a visual storyteller was by taking complete control of his work.

If editors, picture editors, or art directors were involved, he would always face the risk of them dismissing his ideas. He gained his independence by declining commissions and self-funding his work instead.

Offering an example of a missed opportunity to redefine traditional photography with storytelling, Duley described how he slowly gained the trust of a group of elderly Angolan widows.

Their husbands were killed during a war in the country. Eventually, he was able to take a beautiful but somber picture of them while they cooked amid broken buildings.

Duley described the photo as one he thought he was expected to take.

It was only in hindsight that he realized a better picture would have been one of the women smiling and laughing as they teased him.

Shutters Shatter Stereotypes

Writing about the photographic storytelling and the redefinition of the traditional princess for Shutter Magazine, Kahran and Regis Bethencourt described photographers as storytellers.

The duo elaborated that photographers have the chance to portray the world as they see it, and to shatter negative stereotypes.

The shattering of negative images that have been part of our culture’s stories for years means that some traditional portrayals must be reimagined or redefined.

One way the Bethencourts did this was to use a creative approach to traditional photography and reimagine iconic fairytale princesses as young black girls.

They explained that the project gave the models an opportunity to envision themselves as royalty.

The photographers said they were inspired by hearing young black girls asking their parents why they couldn’t have skin like Cinderella or hair like Frozen’s Elsa.

The Bethencourts created images that offered 14 young models a multifaceted positive experience.

They were not merely featuring black women as princesses and heroines to challenge media perceptions; they were part of the re-visioning of our storytelling too.

The results were not as basic as putting models in imitation Disney Princess costumes.

Instead, the portraits were inspired by cultural traditions, hairstyles, and fashion, as well as the professional photographers’ past work, photography portfolio, and personal experiences.

Tradition And Beyond

The way the Bethencourts handled the project shows that they struck a happy balance between traditional photography and thinking out the box. Shooting in two studio locations (Los Angeles and Atlanta) and not being willing or able to transport a great deal of equipment meant that they had to be incredibly flexible.

They were able to summarize their handling of the shoot with a simplified setup in the following way:

  1. Lighting is one of the easiest and most versatile ways to create unique moods in photos.

The starting point for simplifying a photographic setup is to determine what mood or feeling needs to be conveyed in the images.

Use contrast-creating modifiers for bold, dramatic, and powerful images, and large modifiers for softer images.

  1. It’s a lack of imagination, not equipment, that’s limiting.

The Bethencourts were determined to use what they had and go from there.

They said that the challenge of working with a one-light setup when they embarked on their photographic careers enabled them to adapt to various locations and circumstances.

  1. Think out of the box to add impact.

After getting the main shots right, the team looked at ways of adding impact to the shoot.

By playing with angles, gels, modifiers, and other elements, they were able to capture unexpectedly great pictures.

The Bethencourts added that one of the best ways a photographer can develop a unique style is to learn the traditional rules – and then to break them.

After all, photography is not just about documenting the moment. It’s also about reimagining old stories in new and unique ways.

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