Powerful Storytelling Through Photography

Updated: 30 Jul 2023


When I was a young child, I recall picking up a copy of my fathers National Geographic magazine left on the coffee table in the living room. I eagerly started to look for interesting stories to read from around the globe.


Whilst reading, I happened upon an article about a man named Arturo, a slim, 40 year old fisherman from a small coastal village on the island of Mozambique. Of course I didn’t know him, but with beautifully constructed wording and jaw dropping images adorning each page –  that quickly changed.


Within just a few minutes, this little boy from rural Oxfordshire had been transported into Arturo the fisherman’s world, several thousands of miles away … And that is the power of storytelling.


Storytelling is a very strong communication tool. Add photographic images to storytelling and it provides a more powerful and emotive stimulus to any viewer.


As a young child I wanted to learn. Much like the proverbial sponge, I was constantly self-educating and soaking up masses of information. Of course, this thirst for knowledge extends into our adulthood and ultimately our whole lifetime. That is human nature.


Words alone are a powerful communication tool. Photographic images alone are a powerful communication tool. Join words with photographic images and storytelling and that becomes an extremely powerful tool that resonates through all human interactions.


Everybody loves a good story. A child speaking about their day at school, through to grandad’s recollection of experiences during the war – we all love telling or listening to stories.


“A picture paints a thousand words.” No truer words have been spoken.


In recent years, many businesses have started to employ good storytellers. Why is that? The answer is simple. Good storytelling is good for business.


Viewers want to be able to relate, engage and connect with a company and discover that personal touch they can empathise with. Throughout history we have always been open to strong storytelling as a form of communication and the advantage that this medium has to offer.


Who doesn’t like telling or listening to a good story?


Every child who is offered the chance to read a book or watch the television will instantly look for visual stimulation. Words on a page are great, but every child wants to view those pictures or other visual imagery to add to their imaginations.


From childhood into adulthood, we retain this desire for visual imagery. It is powerful and emotive.


Powerful storytelling through photography

Photo Credit: Afghan Girl – Steve McCurry


Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, photos can create a sense of place, personality or emotion more clearly and quickly than the written word. That’s why we’re so drawn to stories that include photography—the images powerfully confirm and expand upon what we discover in the text.

There are many forms of storytelling oral, digital and written, and the medium used is often reflective of the people telling the stories.

Each group has specific tales they tell and many serve a purpose such as entertainment, cultural preservation, or instilling moral values.



Powerful storytelling through photography

Powerful storytelling through photography


Photography is often a vital part of that storytelling, especially in its digital form. One indication the art of photography has become its own form of storytelling is the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.”


A photographic story can change the way viewers think, feel and act. They can bring viewers to new places, introduce them to new people and create empathy for the planet and those who live on it.


So what is storytelling photography?


Photographic storytelling is the art of conveying stories, ideas and viewpoints through the medium of photography. It is a great example of how photography is not just the practice of creating visually interesting or stunning pictures, but is about telling stories, real or fantasised.

In photography, storytelling is usually called a photo essay or photo story and it’s a rather common practice. If you read magazines like National Geographic (Link), you would have seen some great examples of storytelling many times.


To put it simply, it’s a way for a photographer to tell a story with a series of photographs or even single photograph sometimes. In case of a series of photographs, images are ordered in a specific way with the aim of affecting the viewer’s emotions and intellect.


Powerful storytelling through photography

Photo Credit: Child Labour. Bangladesh. Photographer unknown.


This short section of the article will provide the seven guiding principles for storytelling and why it is so important in people’s every day lives.


The Seven Guiding Principles Of Storytelling In Photography


The following seven guiding principles of storytelling through photography can be useful particularly if you’re new to the concept of storytelling in photography and want to learn and draw up ideas of how to tell stories with your photos.


1. Planning


Planning is one of the most important parts of visual storytelling. You must plan in advance how are you going to visualise the story you have in your mind. The planning process should include selecting the topic, doing a research on the topic and planning your shots – they should be very diverse and visually appealing. You should also consider using some symbols in your images in order to convey your message more clearly.


Often during a shoot, you might not be able to capture the photos in the exact order you planned. However, keeping this order in mind can help you avoid chaos and edit the story in less time.


In addition to this, there’s a practical value of planning your shoot ahead. If you carefully scout the area you will shoot before the actual session, you will know what kind of lighting is available (and what to bring) and what kind of weather patterns you can expect.


When it comes to storytelling in travel or documentary photography, it can be pretty useful to research the local culture, events and behavioural patterns of the subjects to be photographed. Never assume that everything will go ahead smoothly. Be prepared to tackle various issues as they arise.


2. Single Shot vs Multiple Images


Can a photographer narrate better stories with a single image or with a series of images? While it’s not easy to answer this question, it depends on the topic of storytelling. It’s important to remember that a single image is only a “semi-truth”  because it’s impossible to tell everything in just one photograph. A single image might be very powerful but it is still only one part of the bigger picture.


On the other hand, a series of photographic images allows a viewer to process each image independently and then connect multiple images into a cohesive storyline. The first and last images in a series are the most important because they have to be strong enough to grab a viewer’s undivided attention.


In addition to choosing whether you want to tell stories with a single or multiple images, you should also decide what kind of story do you want to tell. You have two options – open or closed stories.


Open stories are quite interesting because they give a lot of freedom to both photographers and their audience. This means that the viewer’s past emotions and experiences will affect the way your story is seen and interpreted.


On the other hand, a closed story doesn’t leave a lot of room for open-ended interpretations. It should be organised and told in a rather straightforward way so that everyone can come to the same conclusion.


3. Emotional Impact


No matter how brilliant your storytelling pictures are in terms of their technical expertise, they also have to hold a strong emotional impact with your viewers.


Not all images must contain a human figure or human interaction to be emotionally strong. In fact, they can contain anything from a landscape to abstract visuals – the only thing that matters is that they can evoke strong emotions in the viewer’s heart.


In addition to evoking strong emotions, storytelling images should be carefully layered with meaning. This is usually the most difficult process in storytelling because it doesn’t allow us to take just random pretty images. These intentional layers of meaning should be the main criteria when selecting and arranging the images for the story.


Think carefully about your colours and composition when you want to create certain emotions in your storytelling photographs. The colour scheme and even the white balance you choose can be great tools for conveying certain emotions. Knowing the colour theory can help you create rather bold and memorable images!


Experimenting with warm and cool colours will allow you to quickly change the atmosphere in your images. For instance, if you focus on the spectrum of reds that will increase the sensation of joy, intimacy, passion or pleasure. On the other hand, cold bluish colours will transmit the feeling of calm or perhaps unhappiness and isolation.


4. Variety In Your Storytelling


Everyone likes variety! Since you certainly don’t want your viewers to get bored and consider your storytelling skills weak, you need to challenge their imagination by offering them a variety of shots.


Just focusing on one kind of photograph won’t tell a whole story – you need to pay attention to details and become flexible when it comes to your shooting style and aesthetic preferences.


You need vary and shoot portraits, landscapes, abstract images, wide-angle shots, action shots, zoomed-in details and so on in order to tell a whole story.


5. Originality


Originality might seem like an overrated concept, but it’s quite important especially in storytelling photography. It’s hard to come up with an original scenario that can truly entertain your viewers. It’s challenging to create something unique with billions of images that can be seen everywhere these days.


However, it’s a great practice to strive for originality and stand out from the crowd whenever possible.


6. Structured Narratives


Stories must have beginnings, middles, and ends and the same principle holds true for visual storytelling too. If you’re just starting out a series of pictures, you can practice storytelling by trying to form a chronological narrative structure. Just like a movie, your photo essay should have an opening shot, establishing shot, interactive and sequential shots, and a closing shot.


7.  Impact


If you have followed the previous six guiding principles you should be able to offer a strong and meaningful story.  With your written narrative and structuring, together with a chronologically ordered series of photographs, this will lead the reader along an imaginary path and provide success in your storytelling project.


If you want to make something more experimental, you don’t have to stick to these rules but you should still have some kind of minimal narrative structure to guide your viewers.


The idea of storytelling becomes even more interesting when there are illustrations and this is the exact reason why everyone likes photo articles.


Illustrations make the stories alive and more memorable and because of this, it’s definitely worth the effort to learn to tell stories with photographs.


Photography as an art form is often a very important part of storytelling process, especially in its digital form.


One strong indication the art of photography has become its own form in storytelling is the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” No truer words have been spoken.


Thanks for your time.




Linked Pages: About Mark Brion 


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