The Intent in Photographic Storytelling

Tips & Techniques

One of the most powerful applications of photography has been as a tool to document some of the most important moments in recent history, whether that’s in terms of a shared history of the world in the form of photojournalism, or in the more personal history of family snapshots, personal photography, and street photography.

Photography for personal use is prevalent in everyday life perhaps more today than ever before; every dance-floor selfie on a night out is photographic storytelling, every published snapshot in some way contributing to the wider communal pool of stories being told. It is accessible to anyone with a smartphone, and the barrier to entry-level dedicated camera units is immensely low secondhand. Photography is essential in messaging apps, a part of daily communication like never before.

When people look to take their storytelling a little more seriously whether in their personal documentary, street photography, or full on photojournalism then my best advice at the moment is to understand the role of intent in the work.

For me the difference between Street Photography and Photojournalism is that in Street the story is implied whereas in Photojournalism the story should or even must be told. That is why in Photojournalism the image is almost never presented out of context, and is accompanied either with other images, or a caption, or a full article, which the image only serves to illustrate.

The intent to either imply or outright demonstrate a story in an image is something that I think must be decided upon first. While you can always remove context from a piece of photojournalism and present it as a street photograph, or add context to a street photograph and present it as photojournalism if there is a purpose that you outline to yourself beforehand it will almost always inform the concept, the style, and the execution. These are aspects that are much harder to change after the image is made.

Intending to imply a story can cause a photographer to lean towards a new wave approach to street photography, where the veil of mystery withholds information from the viewer, through silhouetted ideas of characters, concealed identities, abstract interpretations through reflection and soft focus.

Intending to tell a story outright can mean a more intimate commitment to subjects and topics – longer time spent in spaces filed with characters the images will imbue with life through details, their actions and interactions with other elements of the story.

Deciding on your intent is one of the best first steps towards producing images which have a more considered meaning than snapshots and otherwise unconsidered ways of making images. It can guide artists towards a more consistent theme within their work, and towards projects encompassing large bodies of work based on long term effort.

About the Author

Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. You can follow his work on Instagram and read more of his thoughts on photography on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which you can read about here.

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