Are you running a schema on me?

Are you running a schema on me?

My work with NGOs in a creative role is increasing, daily. Photography is taking a back seat to helping these NGOs with creative ideas and management of those ideas, aka marketing. Several of the NGOs I work with have found in their research that the cultures they are working with are oral based. In fact research shows that most of the cultures on this blue ball are oral based. So I started thinking, always a dangerous thing to do, what does this mean to a photographer like me.

Photography is often described in literary terms. Maybe because the very word Photography means; writing with light. So often when photographers want to describe what they do they make analogies to the written story, or the poem. All fare and very accurate.

Now, it comes as no surprise to my readers that I find it very difficult to write. This might explain my infrequent blog post. It is just hard work to write even a few lines of type. My spelling is practically non-existent and my typing is well, lets just say its slow. But I love to listen and tell stories. I also am oral. My mother would agree to that statement. As a child, everything went into my mouth. I once fell down the stairs in my house with a crevice attachment to the vacuum cleaner in my mouth. Took a huge chunk out of the back of my throat, bled for hours. Had to be hung upside down to keep from drowning in my own blood…whoa…TMI!

Maybe that is why I relate so well to many of the cultures I photograph? Not the vacuum part, the oral part. Most of those cultures are oral based. They pass down traditions and truths orally. Lately I have been helping my clients to look at how they communicate their truths. Help them find their voice. Help them tell their story.

It is helpful to ask, “What makes up a good story?” First you need to understand what is the purpose of the story. It almost always has a message, maybe a moral of some kind. Maybe it is to communicate truth, injustice, struggles or some value. In a photograph this might be the concept of the image. A shot of trash in front of the Taj  shows how pollution is ruining the beauty of the tomb. My shot a few weeks back that showed the lady with her hands over her face was a way to communicate the shame she felt from HIV. To use David DuChemin’s favorite phrase, what is your over arching vision here? Where are you going to take the viewer?


A good story often starts with a hook. “I was trekking the forgotten trails of the Himalaya when I came face to face with death.”  Even that famous cartoon dog Snoopy knew how to start a tale, “It was a dark and stormy night”. Once you have them, then it is time to slowly unveil the plot. But how do you keep their interest? A good story teller often  uses the unexpected or surprise. We need to brake the readers schema. Our schemas help us to predict and to see what is coming next. When the schema is broken this creates interest and keeps the listener’s attention. Plot twists like in stories by M. Night Shyamalan are great for this. He is a master of breaking our schema. But they can’t be cheap or unrewarding. There has to be a pay off. Everyone hates the movie that uses the old, “It was all a dream”, and no one really died. Cheap. The pay off needs to have been worth the suspense.

f/5, 1/500 sec, at 210mm, 100 ISO, on a Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL


OK so how do we translate this into a photograph? The unexpected can be obvious as in these two images. Here we have the unexpected. The Thai man with the hat doesn’t fit into his world. His clothes are out of place with others in Thailand. The pocket full of pens and the objects hanging from his shirt all serve to break what we expect. The group of praying Muslim men looks normal and as we expected, at least at first. At second glance we see the Nike “swoosh” and a faint “Just Do It” on the back of a coat. Very unexpected and a break in our schema.

This break can be much more subtle, almost subliminal. In the image of the Muslim man above we are not used to seeing a Muslim man with a fleece coat and beautiful eyes with eye liner on them. This is unexpected, though that might not be the thing that is obvious when you view this image. But it grabs your attention.

Most every good image we shoot will have some aspect of this in it. At some other time I will go into more depth on this. But right now I am going to break your schema and stop here to leave you wanting more.

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  1. André

    Great topic, I’ll keep an eye out for the follow-up

  2. Craig Ferguson

    Great idea for a blog post. Personally, I find when I’m photographing older people, I always wonder what stories they’d tell if only I could sit with them and listen. As a travel photographer in Asia though, that’d often mean learning to speak a new language first 🙂

  3. Jeffrey Chapman

    Matt, I think that you sell yourself short. I enjoy reading your posts; they’re well thought out and well written. You’re a fine writer. And this is another excellent post to remind us to think more about what we see and feel.

  4. Aleksei Saunders

    Great post Matt.

    Love the image with the “swoosh”.

  5. Aleksei Saunders

    Great post Matt.

    Love the image with the “swoosh”.

  6. Andy Wilson

    Matt, You seem to be reading my mind. I’m working through WTF for the second time and it’s really setting many neurons and synapses off on a creative journey (or journeys)and storytelling is featuring strongly in what I’m considering at the moment. I’m now wondering how one would go about ‘setting up’ and ‘breaking’ schema in photoessays (with and without written/oral commentary”. Any thoughts/guidelines?

  7. David duChemin

    Damn, Schema? I’m going to have to write a second edition of WTF just to accommodate this thinking. 🙂

    But the swoosh? Dang, it took me 10 minutes to find it. Next time put a circle or arrows pointing to it 🙂

    How’s Srinagar? Wish I was there. Hugs to D&J and salaams to the others.

  8. Matt Brandon

    Hey all- in Srinagar with friends shooting some fun stuff. Thanks for the comments. Hope to follow up this post once I return. TTFN

  9. Toni | Daily Vignette

    I seldom comment, because I feel so out of my league, but I just wanted to thank you for your post – not just this one, but all of them. I agree with Jeffrey, they are all well written and well thought out, filled with excellent information and thoughts upon which to ruminate. I always look forward to your next post. Thank you.


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