Is photography storytelling?

These days many people seem to come out as storytellers, whether they’re photographers, architects or marine biologists. For some reason it has become a very desirable and overused title, especially among photographers. 

Not all photographers see their work as storytelling. Garry Winogrand has said that “photographs don’t tell a story, they just show what something looked like… to a camera.” He argued that no photograph bears a story. 

“Photographs don’t tell a story, they just show what something looked like… to a camera.”

Garry Winogrand

Fragments of a story

I’ve personally pondered whether my photography is storytelling and whether I’m even obligated to thrive for it. Many photographers seems to emphasise the ideology, but I haven’t ever really connected with it, because I just don’t personally see photographs as stories.

Some photos may invoke a mental image or perhaps a small part of a story, but it’s hard to see an actual narrative in most photographs. Sure, sometimes a genuine plot just happens to appear in a single stand-alone image, but that’s more like an unfrequent deviation rather than something self-evident.

A story implies that there’s a chronology or a timeline involved. A photograph is a fragment of that — a moment frozen in time, more like a still frame of the actual story. In order to transform photography into storytelling, a larger body of work would be required. A photo essay for example, that consists of multiple images. A single stand-alone image can tell a story, but it’s not doing it by default. Trying to force it, will just look artificial.

Photographs doesn’t have any narrative abilities — they’re mute

“A photographer doesn’t have any kind of storytelling responsibilities. You have a responsibility to describe well, because photographs doesn’t have any narrative abilities — they’re mute.” Garry Winogrand puts it. “You only know what something looks like, not what’s happening.”

Here’s an old clip where Garry Winogrand explains his views. I wouldn’t jump down a cliff, if Garry would’ve had, and there’s certainly a thing or two that I wouldn’t necessarily agree him with. The entire storytelling question has been troubling me however. Until recently I’ve had trouble in deciding where to stand regarding it. Sometimes I’ve even felt that there’s something wrong with my photography, because I don’t see myself as a storyteller, even though everyone else seems to. Garry’s thoughts on the matter gave me much comfort and reinsurance.

The god damn Instagram

Instagram is a major boiling pot of whatever social media trend happens to be running rampant. In the lack of a better term, it seems to be very “hipstery” and cool to profile oneself as a storyteller. I have no idea whether these people actually give it any though or honestly consider them as storytellers, or is it just another fad among others. Inspecting the work of these Instagram storytellers, doesn’t reveal any evidence of the claimed storytelling.

This is what originally aroused my suspicion. An easily replicated photo of someone facing their back towards the camera, on a yellow raincoat, in front of a mountain, lake or a waterfall just can’t be storytelling. Or if it is, there are 9/10 storytellers telling the same story over and over again. Don’t believe me? Have you ever checked out Instarepeat?