A Lensless Picture

Does your technique get in the way of the story?

I want to speak to storytellers today. In particular, storytellers that tell someone else’s story. Whether you’re telling a story in one image or in several, the goal is always to effectively communicate what is happening in the story unfolding before you. The question then becomes, what is the best way to communicate this story visually. This is where things get confusing and sticky. I’m developing a theory in my shooting that boils down to this, when technique in the photograph draws attention to the technique itself, something has gone wrong. Now the photo is about the storyteller and not the story, meaning; the photographer and not their subject. It’s a bit like the young man who out dresses his prom date. Never a good idea.

Let me clarify here. I’m not talking about a piece of art that is telling the photographer’s story. Maybe it is a difference of who “owns” the story? And by owns I mean who’s story is the photographer’s image telling. Maybe it is a matter of “voice”? Who’s voice is the photographer using to tell the story, his or the subject? There’s a subtle distinction here that in its subtlety makes a huge difference. Let me explain it this way. If I’m a photographer and I want my art to be seen and to communicate what I feel, then I might choose to shoot images in radical angles that disturb the viewers. I might choose to process the images in such a way that is gritty and communicates a certain feeling. I get this and I completely agree with the artist’s choice to do these things. On the other hand, if you’re a documentary photographer, and you’re trying to tell someone else’s story and technique becomes so powerful that it draws attention to the technique itself then I think you’ve lost the story.

Recently I met a photographer here in Penang that wanted me to look at his work. As he started showing me image after image they were all created using the same technique: isolating one color and one object on the frame and then desaturating the rest of the image. This is a technique often over used in wedding photography and more and more in travel imagery. Personally, I am tired of it. I was put off when I started looking at the images, because I have a bias against this technique. This is the point, isn’t it? The technique was so dominant that if the viewer was adverse to it, they couldn’t see anything but the technique. The work became art objects that told a story about the artist.

Interestingly enough, when I stopped to actually look at the images I realized he found compelling subjects and composed them in brilliant and communicative manners. The problem was I couldn’t see the photo for the technique. He told me he had another portfolio where he didn’t use this technique. As I viewed his other portfolio I was overwhelmed by his talent and his abilities. I asked him what drove him to desaturated his images? The response I got was that they sold better. At first I came off kind of hard and told him that he was selling out. Then I realized that I had been unfair. He, like the rest of us, was just trying to make a living.

But here’s my point. His images could easily have stood alone and communicated effectively without the technique. This is a case where the technique told us more about the artist than the subject and was used to help sell the image. But what if he had shot for a client and was trying to tell their story, then there is a strong chance that this technique would’ve drawn attention away from the story to the photographer.

On the contrary, technique can add to the story without taking away and distracting from the story itself. For instance, using motion blur, a specific depth of field or even a choice to go black and white or color. If done effectively these techniques enhance the story and help communicate the message. If overdone, these techniques can be just as damaging as isolating a color.

This rant of mine is not new and it’s not unique to me. I just finished an hour and a half conversation with Michael Yamashita, a 30 year veteran with National Geographic who has over 32 articles with the magazine and he said his peers strive for what he calls a, “lensless photograph”. Again, the concept being, the first thought is to the story. The goal in documentary photography is for the viewer to walk away moved by the story and later to say thank you to the photographer for bringing it to their attention.

I think this is a different goal than what most people have today. I think the Internet and all of its social media children lend themselves to an ego-fest for photographers. It’s all about me. Look at me and what I can do. There obviously is a time and a place for that, but I fear there are many stories that are being lost in the meantime.

About Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer.

In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

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5 thoughts on “A Lensless Picture

  1. Pingback: Field Lighting #22: Stan Meador

  2. Matt, what a fascinating post.

    I remember a few years ago, I had a very focused conversation with myself (I must broaden my network!), trying to work out what it was that separated the images I found ‘strong’ and the ones that I thought didn’t work. I reached the conclusion that the strong images were ones that showed a good mastery of technique – that the photographer was very present.

    (Yes..I know…I deserve some sort of recognition for my unique insights) 🙂

    What I meant was a mastery of photographic technique – using a certain focal length to convey a certain sense or feeling, or using lights and shadows in a certain way, or a shallow DOF, or any other number of ways that a photographer ‘manipulates’ the scene through in-camera techniques.

    I decided that what separates an ‘image’ from a ‘snapshot’ is the confidence and experience that bleeds out from the photograph. At the hands of the photographer.

    Is the idea of a ‘lensless photographer’ an image maker who has managed to transcend their camera? Is that even possible?

    This ties back quite nicely to your previous post about photography and reality…documentary vs art…the one that got many of us quite engaged and riled up. (are you writing a book? maybe you should be)

    It’s just all so sticky. How to separate the scene, the story, the photographer who captures the story, the viewer, the camera, the editing, the context, the viewer.

    Definite food for thought. As always.

  3. Very good points Matt. As I read your post I can’t help but think about “techniques” or photo “treatments” like Hipstamatic. Five years from now, I fear that a lot of folks are going to be saying to themselves… “what were we thinking”.

  4. Hear hear. Your point is similar to what I believe. Namely, if the average viewer notices the technique before the subject you’ve totally missed the boat. And if it happens to fellow photographers, you’re likely in trouble too – the image is probably gimmicky. In both cases, you’ve failed to say what you wanted to say as well as you could, because viewers get distracted by the technique.

    In other words, I think ‘distracting technique’ is usually bad for any type of photography, not just if you are telling someone else’s story.

    Now if only I could avoid this myself:-)

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