The Art of Telling the Truth: Comparing Photography and Storytelling

My wife, Bethany, is a photographer, and a few weeks ago we were sitting out on our porch, enjoying the summer breeze when she said something that I found really profound. She told me how one of her college professors told her that, contrary to common belief, photography as an art form is much more closely related to storytelling than it is to, say, film (or even painting). I was struck by how meaningful – and true – this is.

After all, the same elements that make a photograph good are some of the same elements that make a story or novel good: a keen eye for detail, an empathy with subject matter, an understanding that there is great, deep meaning even in the simplest of things. Certainly, each art form is differentiated by very specific elements, or skills. But even those differing elements function the same way within their respective art forms. For example, a photographer’s use of light and shadow to accentuate an object in such a way that creates specific meaning, or mood, functions in much the same way that a beautifully scripted sentence does. A phrase wonderfully turned is to the novel or short story what light cast through lens is to photography. They are the practical “objective correlatives” to their forms. That is, they are elements through which meaning is created – and depicted, understood.

And consider the way that a wonderful photograph can capture your emotions, your imagination, your heart. Why do we stand in museums and galleries for hours, taking in photo after photo, or perhaps standing in front of a single photograph until it releases us from its spell? I would suggest it’s because such works of art are telling a story that, for one reason or another, attaches itself to some synapse inside us, some emotional magnet from which, like a novel whose pages we turn and turn, chapter after chapter, we simply cannot detach ourselves.

The creation of a photograph, like the creation of a story, demands from an artist a certain measure of dedication to the way things are, to reality, to the world as it is, or could be. People are a certain way, they do certain things, they must do certain things. People make certain faces, or gestures; they stand in strange ways, or unique ways; they stare or eat or kiss or run or sleep or work in ways that only a human being can. And it is the job, the duty, of the photographer to capture this law of nature in all its grand, beautiful singularity.

Of course, it is the job of the filmmaker, the painter, or the sculptor to do this too. But artists in each of these fields are allowed a certain space for invention. That is, they can alter the natural order of things. The filmmaker can change the world in which the story exists and the painter can alter the way color interacts with canvas. Even the sculptor can change the way the human body bends or twists. But the photographer has only one moment, only a single opportunity to capture the world as it is. And to do so he or she must have a storyteller’s eye, she must see the way a storyteller does, with a dual perspective: with an eye for the way things are as well as an eye for what the way things are means (which is closely related to empathy).

Like the storyteller who understands that the detail of each description and the structure of each sentence is crucial to capturing and depicting meaning, the photographer must see each speck of pixel, each inch of light and shadow, as crucial to the depiction of meaning. And, for that matter, both sorts of artists must understand – and act upon – the truth that anything (any shadow, any misplaced word) can alter completely the meaning portrayed in their work.

The stakes are high.

Naturally, therefore, necessarily even, the artist assumes a certain level of responsibility. Both to his work and his own intentions, but also to the truth of reality. What the photographer photographs is, so to speak. That is, it exists. The artist can never escape this fact. It will haunt every pixel of every shot, every shadow, every line and face and pose.Walker Percy wrote that good art “discovers and knows and tells, tells the [viewer/experiencer] how things are, how we are, in a way that the reader can confirm with as much certitude as a scientist taking a pointer reading.” So the role of the photographer – and his duty – is to display the truth of (a) reality. To do otherwise is to create from a fundamentally relativistic perspective; it is essentially to assert that reality is meaningless, that it isn’t good enough, that the things that make up the human experience lack drama and color. It is to suggest that the things that capture our imaginations and our emotions are worthless.

Indeed, may I go so far as to argue that such art suggests that the handiwork of God is incomplete?

I don’t mean to diminish the fantastic role that imagination can and should and must play in art – and even faith. The imagination can flourish even in a world where the laws of nature reign, even in a world that operates according to the truth of reality.

The most obvious way a fictional world can be planted firmly in the ground of reality? True depictions of the relationships between good and evil, love and hate, redemption and damnation. Each is meaningless without the other, as Flannery O’Connor wrote, and so it is the job of the artist to truthfully depict each.

The photographer has just a single moment to capture a snapshot of reality. Each shot, no matter how rapidly taken, captures a new moment, a new piece of truth, a new story.

The storyteller has a different set of tools, but his job is the same. For Truth is Truth, and no man can make otherwise.

Be therefore,
Show, therefore,
Create, therefore


One thought on “The Art of Telling the Truth: Comparing Photography and Storytelling

  1. This explains (to me, I’m sure you already realized it) why most of us react negatively (and strongly so) when a photographer fakes a photo (“photo-shops”) to create a more dramatic image. We know we’ve been lied to or manipulated rather than shown a truth.

    Interestingly, in the early years of photography as an art form there were many attempts to use photographs more like paintings and these just fell flat. (obviously contrived settings, “ghosted” images, props & costumes)

    Photography has been my love since I was young (and used to “snap” photos with an empty camera). This post is inspiring me to pick up my “good” camera (not the little digital) and get to work a bit. I’m rusty, though.

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