twenty things i learned about storytelling photography

Sunday, March 2:  Today, I attend a fantastic day-long seminar hosted by National Geographic on “Storytelling Photography.”  The two speakers are Ami Vitale and Melissa Farlow, photojournalists who tell emotionally powerful stories through photography.

at National Geographic
at National Geographic
at National Geographic
at National Geographic

Ami Vitale’s work as a photojournalist has taken her to 85 countries.  According to her website, Ami Vitale Photography, she has “exhibited around the world in museums and galleries and published in international magazines including National Geographic, Adventure, Geo, Newsweek, Time, and Smithsonian.”  She’s done photo stories about protecting rhinos in Africa, rickshaw drivers in India and the conflict in Kashmir.  She knows it’s important to show the darker stories of life, but it’s also vital that she tells the story our humanity and the things that unite us.

Melissa Farlow has worked extensively in the American West for National Geographic and more recently, documenting mustang herds. According to the website she shares with her photographer husband, Olson & Farlow, Melissa chronicled “life along the Pan American highway for a National Geographic book titled The Long Road South. Other National Geographic Magazine stories of hers feature varied subjects—culture and climate change in the Alps and West Virginia’s mountaintop removal mining.  Themes of land and people are chronicled in Alaska’s Tongass Forest, Okefenokee Swamp, Hudson Valley, Meadowlands, National Road, Kentucky Horse Country, Invasive Species, and a photo-biography of landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. One story required four months traveling to many of the national parks for the magazine, and a separate piece on Olympic National Park.”

Ami Vitale and Melissa Farlow
Ami Vitale and Melissa Farlow

As the seminar lasts all day, a wealth of knowledge is shared, but for this post, I’ll distill into 20 points what I learned from these talented photojournalists about creating a visual narrative.

  1. Take your time to tell a story and probe beneath the headlines.  Every story has varied and sometimes contradictory stakeholders, as well as people who are impacted.  Sometimes, no matter how much research you do, you don’t know all the aspects and angles until you’re in the middle of the story, so be flexible and open to whatever angles present themselves.
  2. Gain the subjects’ trust.  Be forthright and tell them who you are and what you’re doing, in order to gain intimacy and spend time in the midst of the involved parties.
  3. Weather is your friend.  Make the most of any weather condition;  rain and fog, snow and dust storms can create great atmospheric photos.
  4. Light creates mood.  When the light is bad outside, go inside.  Use the manual settings on your camera to capture light streaming in through windows, or mold the light by using headlights of trucks or taking the flash off the camera and handing it off to someone on the side.
  5. Learn how to use action, motion and timing to your benefit.  Master the manual modes of your camera and think about the effects you want.
  6. Pay attention to perspective and layering.  What’s in the background is as important as what’s in the foreground.  Think of adding value and understanding by layering or by getting up high or down low.  Sit in a place for a long time and wait until the elements come together.  If you’re in a place for a long time, people accept that you’re just a part of the background and they start to ignore you.
  7. Be attuned to relationships and emotions.  Spend time with people so they trust you and allow you to be there for their intimate moments.  Be aware not only of relationships between people but also between people and animals or the natural world.
  8. Go early and stay late.  If you wake before dawn you get not only great light but people who are busy preparing for their day.  If you’re out on the street before other people, then you blend in with the landscape and people don’t take note of your arrival on the scene.  If you arrive early at an event, you can often go backstage and photograph performers preparing for the performance.  At the other end of the day, late at night, things come alive.
  9. Think about the image you will use that distills the story.  Make this your story opener.
  10. Capture subtle changes in time.  Photograph one person at different stages in life.  Go to a place in different seasons or at different times of day.
  11. Create a sense of place.  Photograph sweeping landscapes, people in landscapes, closeups and details, views from above and below.
  12. For portraits, focus tightly on the details that make the person.  Include the environment in the photo.  Include meaningful objects that the person is holding or wearing.
  13. As for details, notice what you notice.  Look for anything that triggers the imagination.  Mystery is good.  Hands and feet, beams of light, bottle caps used as game pieces.
  14. Find storytelling moments.  Mix the quiet with the dramatic.  Juxtapose a life event, like a wedding, with a conflict.  Wander and find moments that surprise you.  Humor is important.
  15. For the story’s ending, find an image that suggests closure: something moving away, a reflection, a time of rest, a person closing a door, frames within frames, images taken at dusk.  Have a visual story that starts in the morning and ends in the evening.
  16. Edit tightly.  Take a lot of pictures and spend a lot of time, waiting for the elements to come together.  Then be ruthless in culling your photos for the final story.
  17. Save all your photos because time tells stories.  Ten years may pass and something may happen that makes the ordinary interesting.
  18. Photograph close to home.  You don’t always have to go to foreign lands to find interesting stories. Get close with people and spend time with them.  Practice your skills on something you have easy access to.  There are beautiful stories everywhere.
  19. Find a story that makes you happy and that you love.  The longer you spend with a subject, the more it reveals itself.
  20. Be authentic.  Find your own way.  Be secure in who you are and what you’re doing.  Follow your heart.

I’m drawn to storytelling like a bee to nectar.  I always have stories brewing in my head, true stories about my experiences in Oman and Korea, about my travels.  Fictional stories about tree-huggers, stamp collectors, people whose dreams are thwarted and whose yearnings pull them to do outrageous things.  Having written numerous short stories ever since I was a girl, and now revising my novel, I can’t deny that I’m drawn to storytelling.  I also love the idea of telling stories with photography.

Inspiration.  I’m inspired to keep working on my novel, trying to make it the best it can be.  In addition I’m inspired to improve my photography skills by taking seminars and learning how to use the manual settings on my camera.  Practice, practice, practice.

Ultimately, I hope to find the way to my heart.

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seeking inspiration from national geographic: women of vision & 2013 travelers of the year

Thursday, February 6:  This afternoon, I head to the National Geographic Society to listen to a presentation by the 2013 Travelers of the Year.  At the National Geographic Museum, there is also an exhibition called Women of Vision, which has been running since October 10, 2013 and closes on March 9, 2014.  Since it’s always a big trip for me to go into D.C., I take the metro to see the exhibition and then attend the program in the evening.

National Geographic Museum
National Geographic Museum

According to National Geographic‘s website: “Women of Vision features the work of eleven photographers. From the elegant landscapes of the Mongolian steppes and American West to war-torn battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan; from the last great wildernesses of Africa to the lives of people from the Arctic to the Jersey Shore, their stories explore modern realities and what it means to be human in the 21st Century.”

Going into the exhibition
Going into the exhibition
Inside the exhbition
Inside the exhibition

I love the exhibition, in which women photographers have taken storytelling photography to the highest level.  I was allowed to take pictures of the exhibition, but of course pictures of pictures don’t turn out very well.  No matter.  I’ll show you some of them just so you can get an idea of the talent level of these amazing photographers.

Click on any of the photos below for a full-sized slide show.  I don’t know which artist goes with which photograph, but you can read more about the project here: Women of Vision: About the Project.

I was once inspired to do weekly artist’s dates by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  I don’t get to do these too often now, but when I do I’m always inspired.  I love how creative some people are, and I feel awed in the presence of their work.

After seeing the exhibit, I walk through a long hallway covered in years of National Geographic magazine covers; this hallway leads into the regular museum.

Walls of National Geographic
Walls of National Geographic
National Geographic covers from its early days
National Geographic covers from its early days
inside the musuem
inside the museum
National Geographic Museum
National Geographic Museum

After seeing the exhibit, I have quite a bit of time to kill, so I go outdoors, turn on my handy MapMyWalk, and walk around the streets of D.C. as the sun goes down.  I pass by St. John’s Church, Lafayette Park and the north side of the White House, along with other interesting buildings, even one with JOBS banners hanging from the walls.

across from National Geographic
across from National Geographic
Pretty colors in the National Geographic gardens
Pretty colors in the National Geographic gardens
old house on D.C. street
old house on D.C. street

I see the historical St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House.

St. John's Church in Lafayette Square, across from the White House
St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square, across from the White House

In Lafayette Park, I can see the north side of the White House, with the Washington Monument in the background and an equestrian statue of President Andrew Jackson, erected in 1853.

Washington Monument, White House and Stonewall Jackson
Washington Monument, White House and President Andrew Jackson
Stonewall Jackson
President Andrew Jackson
The White House
The White House
JOBS - maybe I should stop in...
JOBS – maybe I should stop in…
reflections
reflections

After having dinner at Panache, I head to the program.   Below are some of these amazing travelers’ inspiring tales.

Photojournalist Allison Wright was in a deadly bus accident on a remote road to Laos and survived, thanks to villagers who never left her side, doctors on two continents, and 30 surgeries. She was inspired by the helpful villagers to return three years later with five doctors and $10,000 in medical supplies, creating the Faces of Hope Fund.

Twenty-nine year old traveler Shannon O’Donnell studied ethical ways for travelers to help and published her tips in The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.

Molly Burke and Muyambi Muyambi founded an organization, Bicycles Against Poverty, using a microfinance model to distribute bikes in rural Uganda, turning what would be a three-hour walk into a swift spin to health clinics, markets, and schools.

Tracey Friley launched Passport Party Project, a grassroots initiative to provide underserved girls the tools they need to obtain their first passports. Little more than a third of Americans have passports—compare that with 67 percent of Canadians who hold one—and it’s not just the price ($135 for adults, $105 for minors) that holds would-be travelers back but also the uncertainty of how to travel. This challenge is even more pronounced in poor urban areas.

In 1989,  John and HIlda Denham bought 2,000 acres of coastal forest with a goal of protecting nearly four miles of turtle-nesting beach in Costa Rica. When John established The Pacuare Nature Reserve nearly every turtle nest was pilfered by poachers and green turtles were being slaughtered. Today, 24-hour patrolling has reduced poaching to 2 percent and the forest is rich in wildlife, with over 30 mammal species and a bird list of 230.

Some of the Travelers of the Year were not available to speak at the event.  You can read all the inspirational stories here: National Geographic Travelers of the Year.

After the event, I was surprised to find that United Airlines, who partnered with National Geographic to create the Sustainable Travel Leadership Award, put on quite a do with excellent food and a free open bar.  I wish I had known about the free food and drink because I had already filled up on tapas and wine at Panache.  Of course, that didn’t stop me from partaking.

I’m really excited because on Sunday, March 2, I’m attending a day-long workshop entitled “Storytelling Photography.”  More on that after the workshop. 🙂

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