The Photo Editor's Take On... The Future of Storytelling
By Thomas Patterson for NGO Storytelling I was waiting in line at a camera store last month when it struck me: I was waiting in line at a camera store. Here I was, with two customers in line ahead of me at Citizen’s Photo in Portland, Oregon.
Come to think of it, I had been coming here more often. I walk to the store to drop off the film. Then I wait a few days for it to be developed and scanned. Then I make prints or post to social media. It’s a laborious process, so much more costly in time and money than using my digital SLR cameras or my iPhone. Why do I find myself pulling out my ancient Hasselblad 500C for my personal projects these days, shooting film more and more? And I’m not the only one; according to Greg Potter behind the counter at Citizen’s, their sales of camera film are up.
In so many other areas of modern life, consumers are funneled down the more efficient path: away from taxicabs and toward ride-sharing apps, away from brick-and-mortar stores and toward Amazon Prime. I’m not afraid of technology; in fact, I spend much of my working day at my computer or on my phone.
Maybe that itself is the reason.
In an age of moments that can feel momentary – a constant stream of digital ones and zeroes bouncing together on a screen – I believe there’s space for a backlash. Why does storytelling succeed at all? Because there is a hunger for the real.
Information overload is a hallmark of our modern interconnected life. We are only beginning to notice the consequences, both good and bad, which can range from a greater sense of interconnectedness to greater personal anxiety or global vulnerability. As the news cycle speeds up, individual stories have less stickiness. This immersion is now our default setting, our constant context.
This particularly affects those of us whose job it is to use the internet to tell stories. Now that we have an audience of jugglers, how do we convince them to put down the bowling pins and pay attention?
That vital question hovered constantly over a visual editing seminar I attended last month at the City University of New York, hosted by James Estrin of the New York Times. One of the seminar leaders, Whitney Johnson of National Geographic, said something about her process of photo editing that has been kicking around my head ever since: “We are fighting against the familiar.”
In an age of moments that can feel momentary – a constant stream of digital ones and zeroes bouncing together on a screen – I believe there’s space for a backlash. Why does storytelling succeed at all? Because there is a hunger for the real. Real stories, real lives. Even archetypes and emblems are emblematic of the real. In some ways, I believe that the future of storytelling is rooted in the storytelling of the past. Downloads of mp3s are down, and sales of vinyl records are up, not just because of an embrace of old technology, but because many of us place an inherent value on tangible things. Things can be held, considered, shared. Things feel real.
I only suggest that we slow down, focus, listen to each other’s stories, and creatively reflect what we see.
Storytellers would be wise to take cues from gatekeepers of the visual world who are paying attention. In its blog noting the visual trend forecast for 2018, Adobe Stock references "our world of overwhelming and constant digital input” in naming Silence and Solitude a top photography theme. In describing another trend, History and Memory, the Adobe blog mentions how old ways can inform the new:
"In uncertain times, we look to the past for grounding and meaning. We’re watching as a growing group of artists and brands draw inspiration from classic artwork to preserve and celebrate what’s precious from the past, and build bridges between old-world techniques and new world technologies.”
Getty Images notes the same blending of old and new in its top visual trend for 2018, Second Renaissance. "Sometimes changing the future means repurposing the past,” Getty writes.
These story trends can be subtle, but can make an impact and find an audience by influencing even seemingly frivolous things like sports uniforms. Stories on analog processes themselves are also drawing an audience. A simple story on the inner workings of a pencil factory went viral in January. The images are symmetrical, informative, calm, illuminating and absolutely beautiful.
Wes Pope has traveled Route 66 for nearly 20 years, placing unexposed film inside empty pop cans-turned-pinhole cameras for his Pop 66 project. Part of the magic of using an analog process like this can be the art of letting go.
“There’s so much serendipity,” Pope said to me. "I can plan and plan, but the best pictures in this project I did not plan for… The thing about the cans, they make the aesthetic decisions even more than I do. A lens flare appears, seemingly at random.” The result “feels” authentic and fresh.
How can these ideas influence storytellers in the developing world? Save the Children UK’s Invisible Wounds project, on Syrian children who have been victimized by violence, is one example. It used Nick Ballon’s on-location portraits and videos of the children in combination with Alma Haser’s analog animations of ripped and crumpled paper to produce an evocative result.
In the Colombian jungle, Zach Krahmer of Syracuse University made collodion tintype portraits of FARC combatants as the country’s decades-old civil war was ending. Using obsolete technology in the service of striking photography was not a gimmick, but rather a stylistic decision. Krahmer’s work won gold in the Interpretive Project category of this year’s College Photographer of the Year competition.
“I wanted to face my assumptions,” Krahmer told me, about walking into the Colombia jungle with a cardboard box of tintype equipment. “I was really unsure about going in there… To acknowledge subjectivity is the most objective thing you can do."
Krahmer used the nature of the process to build rapport with subjects. Each image required 10-15 minutes to set up and take a picture, with the subjects knowing they had to be still for six or seven seconds. Returning months later, he gave the militants prints, and noted the unvarnished tintypes may deteriorate within years.
With the deepening automation of our daily lives, it’s only natural that we will worry less about process and more about meaning, and this will have ripple effects throughout society. In a larger sense, our audience will be drawn toward well-told stories as a matter of course.
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that NGO storytellers should lug pop cans or tintypes on every assignment. Analog processes should be used purposefully, not to serve as a simulacrum for or shortcut to quality work. And photography clients rely on storytellers to shoot digital due to its speed, transmitability and low cost. I only suggest that we slow down, focus, listen to each other’s stories, and creatively reflect what we see.
What evolving technologies should storytellers consider, and what could the future hold? Laura Elizabeth Pohl showcased on this site some examples of NGOs and nonprofits using augmented and virtual realities in evocative ways. Others arrive all the time. CARE’s “Women on the Move” video, directed by Shannon Carroll of Vivid Story and created in partnership with Oculus VR For Good, was an official selection in the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. This shows evocative NGO storytelling can break through to the wider public.
AR and VR storytelling will surely make headway into our daily lives. It will be crucial for storytellers using these technologies to work within transparent standards to earn and maintain the public’s trust. Another of Getty Images’ visual trends for 2018, Conceptual Reality, springs from this need:
"As trust in media diminishes, we crave imagery that looks real... Attainability and relatability are key when connecting with today’s consumer, with authentic lifestyle storytelling the main vehicle."
I think that’s why I’m shooting film — beautiful, expensive, slow, fickle, difficult medium-format film. The world does not fit easily into my camera’s square composition, but to me, right now, the result “looks real.” So what makes an “authentic” story? Even seemingly subjective storytelling fundamentals such as image selection and aesthetic discernment can now be quantified, as Google AI engineers claim — sending shivers down the spines of us soon-to-be-obsolete photo editors.
But this march of progress contains its own silver lining. With the deepening automation of our daily lives, it’s only natural that we will worry less about process and more about meaning. This will have ripple effects throughout society. In a larger sense, our audience will be drawn toward well-told stories as a matter of course.
"The more your job involves empathy, judgment, human ethics and variety," said futurist Steve Brown, "the better your chances of staying employed.”
Empathy, judgment, human ethics and variety are the ingredients of stories. The more your work involves those attributes, the better your chances of making an impact on the future.
Correction: February 6, 2018 -- This column has been corrected to clarify how Zach Krahmer felt when he first entered the Colombian jungle to photograph. It has also been corrected to state how long it takes for Krahmer's tintype portraits to deteriorate.
Thomas Patterson is a photographer, photo editor and consultant based in Portland, Oregon. He specializes in projects for editorial, corporate and nonprofit clients around the world; and in helping visual storytellers work together better with the businesses that hire them. After nearly two decades working at newspapers and NGOs, he now leads the Projects Committee on Blue Earth Alliance’s board of directors.