Photos as Stories, what are your thoughts? By Paul Lanigan

Hi Steve,

I wondered what you thought of this……
Increasingly I’m hearing photographers refer to their pictures as ‘stories’. I’ve even received comments such as “nice story” on some of my photographs.As someone who has a professional interest in story telling, I feel that the notion of a photograph as a story somewhat exaggerated. In some quarters it has gotten so absurd that one photographer I came across recently referred to the subject (a man) in his photograph as “the plot” of ‘the story’

The only question this poses for me is have we ‘lost the plot’

Whilst experts differ in their definition of story, it’s widely recognized that great stories have context/setting, protagonist/character/hero, antagonist/struggle/challenge/villain, solution/action and outcome/tragedy/victory

Now, take a look at the picture below. There is a clear setting/context. The main characters are the father and his son (protagonists). You could make an argument that they are fighting natural elements (antagonist). But to call this a story you have to be able to answer the question – “what happened next?”

If you asked ten viewers to imagine what happened next, you would get ten different answers. So perhaps it’s fairer to say that photographs can be a powerful element in story telling.

To refer to my photograph as a story is surely going too far.

What do you and your readers think?

PS – the picture was taken on my M9 with a Zeiss 50mm Planar @ 1/250 ISO 160 on vacation in Biarritz.
PPS – It’s your fault I emptied my piggy bank and bought the M9 πŸ™‚ – thank you!


  1. Hey Everyone, thank you so much for all the comments.

    I’m still not convinced of the ‘image as story’ argument and I feel there is a growing number of photographers over egging the story thing. Does that mean I am “taking thinks too literally”? – perhaps but as someone who uses stories in his job, I can’t see any image existing as a story.

    I do accept that a great image can stimulate the imagination to create a story, I do believe that a great image can form part of a story.

    Not convinced – try telling the story of the ‘three little pigs’ in a single image

    • Does it matter? No, it doesn’t. For some, it’s (apparently) an interesting debating topic. For me, it’s a fascinating image and to me, that’s all that counts.

  2. What I like about photography is the slice it preserves from the fleeting moments of time. I love a good story with a beginning, middle, and an end, but to freeze a moment in time is just as beautiful and interesting. I’ve seen the Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of V-J in Times Square and the Joe Rosenthal Iwo Jima flag raising photo hundreds of times and appreciated them for their composition. But I have applied my own wild imaginations about who these people in the photos may have been or what may have happened before and after the scene. Then I saw documentaries of these artists and the photos and I found the facts much more interesting than my fantasies. I love photography for it’s artistry, how it freezes time, and how it ignites imagination and sometimes controversy. But I like a good story as well.

  3. Hey Paul, I’m so glad you wrote this article. This sort of story element to photography has puzzled me since I started in photography. I hardly think your photo invokes any kind of “story” but that has nothing to do with if it’s a good photo or not. And by the way I do like the photo. πŸ™‚

    I suppose one would wonder what the father is looking at and why.. but to me it looks like a casual gaze. Besides my point. I agree that in story telling you need to feel empathy for a character in order to feel engaged by the content… but with photography I think story telling is only one way to achieve a connection with the viewer.

    Most of my photography lacks any type of story and I’m ok with that. I simply find pleasure in capturing colour, line flow and shapes that are pleasing to me. Many may think it’s boring but some find this type of photography captivating in the same way minimalist sculpture is appreciated, such as the legendary Carl Andre.

    Anyway, my two cents on story telling and photography πŸ™‚

  4. One single photo or “snapshot” will not tell a story without any accompanying text. Asking ten people what happened next and their imaginations could run really wild. The photo is not telling a story at all, regardless of what you would like to believe.
    Perhaps a good example of photo story telling is that of GMB Akash.
    The introduction to each gallery being preceded by a small amount of subject text leads to the reader to use their imagination.

  5. That statement, that ‘photos are stories’ is just nonsense. To quote approximately Winograd “You don’t know whether the man is leading the child or the child is leading the man.”

    • Yeah but suppose the photo is a close up on the boy and the dad with a lot of motion blur and an ominous background. The dad is looking back with a strong but worried look while the kid looks scared out of his mind running forward. Still.. no strong/obvious story but it will get you thinking of the possibilities, no?

  6. Good photojournalism and good advertising photos tell a story … but a snapshot is just a snapshot.

  7. Great image!

    A picture which tells a story can have a beginning, middle, and end (an exhausted runner breaks through the finish line). It can also be a point which suggests things before and after (McCurry’s Afghan girl, or his fishing Indians come to mind).

    Images don’t have to be stories, they can just evoke an emotion or even intrigue. Elliott Erwitt’s my favorite for capturing emotions in life or just making me laugh.

    Beyond photography there are a couple thousand years of art history which tell stories in different ways, or don’t. What’s interesting to me are the ways early photographers creatively engaged with defining what photography meant as an art form in relation to painting and sculpture. Remember- the great photographers knew great art. The Picasso / Cartier-Bresson relationship is interesting to think about.

    • Right, the notion of what is “picturesque” in photography grew directly from this art tradition.

  8. It’s certainly a fascinating image; wonderful b&w and composition, although there seems to be a bit of oversharpening. But then I see that in (almost?) very image on this site. Must be something with the site then.

  9. Not to get too deep, but the OP might check out Roland Barthes’ “Image Music Text” or Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”. Susan writes about the differences btw literary and photographic arts.

    From an interview with Sontag in 1975…

    Sontag: I do think that the photographer’s orientation to the world is in competition with the writer’s way of seeing.

    Movius: How are they different?

    Sontag: Writers ask more questions. It’s hard for the writer to work on the assumption that just anything can be interesting. Many people experience their lives as if they had cameras. But while they can see it, they can’t say it. When they report an interesting event, their accounts frequently peter out in the statement, “I wish I had had my camera.” There is a general breakdown in narrative skills, and few people tell stories well anymore.

    Movius. Do you think that this breakdown is coincidental with the rise of photography, or do you think there is some direct causal relationship?

    Sontag: Narration is linear. Photography is antilinear. People now have a very developed feeling for process and transience, but they don’t understand any more what constitutes a beginning, middle, and end. Endings or conclusions are discredited. Every narrative, like every psychotherapy, seems potentially interminable. So any ending seems arbitrary and becomes self-conscious, and the form of understanding with which we are comfortable is when things are treated as a slice or piece of something larger, potentially infinite. I think this sensibility is related to the lack of a sense of history that we were talking about earlier. I am astonished and disheartened by the very subjective view of the world that most people have, whereby they reduce everything to their own personal concerns and involvements. But perhaps, once again, that’s particularly American.

  10. .
    Not all pictures tell a story, just as not all words tell a story: words may form a recipe, or a poem, or a description, or a SHOUT!

    Some pictures may tell a story; it depends what’s in them. Your picture above doesn’t tell a story: it’s a frozen moment, but we don’t know the story ..what’s the man looking at? ..what happened to make him look that way? ..what’s just out of the shot?

    What most (all?) of your pictures have – on the portfolio page which you linked to – is great composition!

    My eyes keep going around and around each frame, never going out of the frame, but examining the frozen action within each pic. They’re great! ..Not stories, but dazzlingly interesting frozen moments.

  11. Having my background in philosophy and semiotics, I like these kind of questions. It’s somewhat vaque to say that pictures tell stories. Stories need a narrative, a text. Therefore stories are always more or less tied to language. Pictures, for me, are diagrammatic, i.e. indexical in their nature. They only “tell” (point out) what happened at the time of the taking of the picture, including information on the gear it was taken with. When, for example, I see smoke, I may be fairly sure there is fire. But I can not know who started it or how. It’s a bit ambivalent to say that pictures tell a story, since they in a sense tell too many stories.

  12. Isn’t “telling a story” what photojournalism is all about? In our photo club (and most clubs) anything submitted in the “nature” category must be evaluated with its story telling aspects as the highest priority. A portrait of an eagle would not score as high as an image of an eagle flying with a fish in its talons.

  13. Excellent image. I don’t think that all stories have an outcome or resolution, though. A lot of Hemmingway’s work seemed to end with the reader drawing a conclusion. That said, I don’t believe that a single image can relate a story in the literary sense…

  14. Here is how I look at it. If a picture can tell a thousand words, than a thousand words can tell a story. In the end I think the beauty of single photo “stories” is that we use our imagination to fill in the blanks, whatever they may be (most likely based on our own life experiences). What I think is very crucial to story telling, whether it’s a single photograph or a series of photographs is definitely the composition of the image. This is the only part of photography that we have full control over and can impart our vision and interpretation. Without composition we don’t have a story, we only have a photograph.

    I’m not saying I’m right, but coming from a background in animation and visual storytelling it’s definitely something I believe in and use in my own photography.

    Great capture by the way! πŸ™‚

  15. Paul, great shot. For me, I describe pictures like this as having great drama. Of course our minds can take what we have in this picture in any direction, but there’s no continuity to support our individual imaginations.

    Like you, I’ve also emptied my piggy bank, it feels great doesn’t it πŸ™‚


  16. Interesting article. I believe a series of photos can tell a story. Even just two photos at a push (remember the M9 contest). But an individual image can lead you to create a story. You can fabricate characters plot and outcome from any one image and that really is the point of a lot of photography. It’s subjective, and let’s people make and draw their own conclusions.

      • a single photograph tells ONLY what is going on at that certain point in time.. it can NOT be a basis for whatever happens next neither can it be a starting or ending point of a story.. because truthfully, each photograph is neither beginning or end, as each life continues even after it cease to exist..

        it is POINTLESS & utterly STUPID to ask assumptions as to what will happen next.. obviously only the people involved knows, thus this kind of thinking is PRETTY USELESS, because as the others have point out, each opinion is subjective and highly personal..

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