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Storytelling in Street Photography

We can find lots of discussion or tutorials in street photography. Many tutorials discuss the same topics over and over—focussing techniques, candid shooting, composition etc. However, I believe that one topic is underrepresented: storytelling in photography

Many composition principles in street photography are the same as in other kinds of photography. The rule of thirds, The Golden Ratio, Golden triangles and spirals, Rule of Odds,Leaving Space,Fill the Frame,Simplification,Balance etc. All of these topics are about technics. But we also try to shot with storytelling in photography.

In belief, storytelling in street photography is another element of interest often overlooked.

Storytelling in Street Photography

Stories are sometimes subtile and covered by more prominent features, such as light or composition. Sometimes, however, stories are told very strongly..

This picture is an excellent example of storytelling in street photography, as it is not very emphasized in many composition principles; yet still it has become one of the most iconic street photographs of all times. This can mostly be attributed to the story behind and around the picture that unfolds in the mind of the viewer. I would argue that some of the most famous street photographs have become famous because they tell a strong story and not because of their composition.

Photojournalism and Storytelling

Is street photography a form of photojournalism of the everyday life? Can one compose an image by directing the subject? I think there are no right and wrong answers. They will strongly depend on whether one wants to represent undiluted and honest every day life. In fact, as we know from photojournalism, already the framing (what to include, what to leave out), the perspective (from below, from above) the film type etc. represent a selection of the truth—one that the photographer sees and/or want to convey.

The viewer will, in addition, make her own selection and add her own phantasies. The final story imagined is probably a different one than the one shot. I guess, one has to go with what feels right. Most of the time I shoot candidly. But when opportunity arises, and the idea for a story emerges, I might get in touch with the subject and direct her or him. I discuss this in more detail here.
The final image then should on the one hand tell a story, while at the same time leave some space for imagination.

Storytelling Elements

The photographer can play with different storytelling elements. Below, I discuss a few alongside some examples from my portfolio. The list of storytelling elements can by no means be exhaustive but only illustrative, to give photographers some ideas for their own projects.

Key story line – All pictures that contain people contain also story lines. Some are quite clear, others are sidelines. The key story line is of course the prevalent one. The protagonist(s) in a photograph around which other storylines converge.

In the picture above, the two lovers are clearly the protagonists. The others play only a secondary role.

Process or Outcome – One can show a process or one can show the outcome. There are different reasons to pick either of them.

If the process in itself is very interesting (tying shoes isn’t), and one wants the audience not to miss the details in the production process, the former is a good choice. If one picks the outcome, then the process is subsumed. This one the one hand gives the viewer the opportunity to see the product, to tell him or herself the story of what the process might have been. It, however, also opens up the image for more story lines that one is distracted from when the process is in focus.