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Successful Images Tell a Story

By Charlotte Lowrie

Professional photographer Paul Liebhardt describes what makes pictures truly great. According to Liebhardt, if a picture doesn't have meaning-if it doesn't tell a story-the image is just another pretty picture. And to tell a story, you must know the subject well. For Liebhardt, this means spending time with the people and places he photographs. "You have to give the viewer something that he sees that makes him understand it all," he explains. Even little things, no matter where they are, can set the picture off, Liebhardt says.

Photographs are a powerful way to tell a story. Leslie Fratkin, a professional photographer based in New York City, who echoes Liebhardt's sentiments. For Fratkin, telling the story has meant helping those who know the subject best tell their story.

Fratkin felt so strongly about the stories told in the images taken by Sarajevo photographers during the Bosnian war that she committed five years to getting their stories told-in images. She created the book and exhibition in which the images taken by nine Sarajevo photographers tell the story of war from their intensely personal perspective.

The hardest part
This challenge-shooting the story in a single shot, isn't easy. By comparison, it makes perfecting the technical aspects of an image look like child's play. But I've spent the past few months trying it anyway. And I continue to try.Boat rescue man jumps

This photo challenge has the potential for changing the way you shoot every image, whether it's pictures of your children, of your family, of nature, or of still-life scenes. If you're like me, you'll think a lot about what telling the story means. Remember that the key is to convey the meaning to viewers, to help them understand what you understand about the subject.

Lessons along the way
Here are some of the things I've learned about using my camera to tell a story:

1. Most often, what you see in front of you is a pretty picture, but it isn't the story.

2. To understand the story, whether it's small, large, humorous, or profound, you have to contemplate, research, watch, and talk - but mostly listen. I've spent time thinking, reading, and asking about the "meaning" of people, trees, rivers, places, and my cat. I've gone back to the same place over and over and gotten better and better (read: more meaningful) images with each successive trip.

3. Every so often, if you're persistent enough, fate presents you with "gimme" picture stories. This article features some of my "gimme" images. To take advantage of the "gimme" shots, you have to have a camera in your hands, and you have to react quickly. It is entirely possible to miss the shot if you're fumbling around getting ready to shoot.

4. Unlike pretty pictures, pictures that capture the essence of a subject can have technical flaws and still be keepers. Though you may wish you had every technicality nailed, it's okay if the image is less than perfect because it has the strength to stand on its own merit. In other words, being off by an f-stop doesn't diminish the story.

5. Shooting meaningful images is tough. Once I committed to this shooting philosophy, I found myself making "deals" with myself-reminiscent of the deals I make with myself while I'm on a diet or trying to stop smoking. I tell myself that nature's beauty tells its own story, and so it's okay just to shoot a pretty stream. And I still photograph beauty, but I know that if I studied the stream, if I followed it to its source, there would be a story-and there would be a very different picture.

6. There should be rules for shooting stories. I didn't know the rules, so I made up my own. For example, I consider it cheating to set up shots by using unnatural props. In other words, if adding an object to a scene helps tell the story, the object is only okay if it is part of the subject's natural context. But it's not okay to carry props, like stuffed animals, in the car and add them to a scene, such as a park bench.

7. Instead of shooting right away, I look around, get to know the place, understand what's happening, and look more closely at what I'm seeing. I take as many pictures as always, but most of them are taken later rather than sooner.

8. Waiting to find the story-to understand the story-is certain to frustrate anyone who is inherently impatient or anxious to get images in the canister or on the memory card quickly.

But pictures that tell stories are pictures that remain longest in viewers' memories. For that reason alone, it's worth spending time to find and tell the story in your images.

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About the author: Charlotte Lowrie is an award-winning freelance journalist and photographer based in Seattle. She is the author of 14 photography books, numerous magazine articles, and she teaches photography classes at BetterPhoto.com.

All images and articles are copyrighted by Words and Photos and may not be reprinted without permission.
Contact: charlotte@wordsandphotos.org