For a long time I knew that there was something missing from my photography, but I didn’t know what it was. I would look at my work and have this feeling that something just wasn’t right. It was frustrating, and as I looked at the images of other photographers I wondered: “What does their work have that mine doesn’t?!”
It wasn’t until I went to a session with photography consultant, Zoe Whishaw, that something clicked.
I was missing the element of story.
Zoe explained to me that although my images were pretty… that was kind of all they were. Just pretty photos, of pretty girls, in pretty dresses. They lacked depth, character, and purpose.
Initially, of course, that was hard to hear. We always want to hear that our work is great, and exciting! Not that it’s, well…a bit boring.
But instead of dwelling on it, I listened intently to what she said, and when I got home that evening, really began to dig deep into storytelling through art. How do you actually tell a story through art? Where do you find these stories? What do other artists do?
For me, the answer came from within. I grabbed a notebook and pen, and at the top of the page wrote the title: “What makes me, me?” Within a few minutes, I had dozens of notes, and with those notes, hundreds of ideas for photoshoots. I realized that the missing element from my work hadn’t just been story, it had been me. Here I was, trying to create imagery that I thought other people wanted to see, when in reality, what I needed to do was think about who I was, and how I could turn that into a visual story.
The first story that I chose to tell was that of my childhood dream of being an artist. For as long as I could remember, I’d been labelled “an arty person – a creative person.” And, honestly, I quite like that label.
As a child, I had wild dreams of running into a forest with an easel and paintbrush, spending the day in the sunshine, painting beautiful landscapes. I don’t know where this fantasy came from, because I wasn’t very good at painting, and I didn’t even particularly enjoy it, but I absolutely loved the fantasy of it.
That’s where the idea for my editorial story “The Artist” came from.
To bring the story to life, I first made a mood board filled with images of artists painting in nature. I realized that instead of looking for fashion photography images of models who were painting, it was far more interesting to look for images of real artists, doing real painting, and draw inspiration from them.
Once the mood board was done, I gathered a creative team around me, shared my vision with them in both written and visual form by sharing a carefully curated PDF file. I included key words for the mood and feel of the shoot, as well as how I wanted the model to look and act. I included notes and inspiration images on styling, makeup and hair. I made a list of props that I wanted to source, and overall, just brought my vision to life as much as possible.
What I found was that the more detail I put into the planning and creation of the story ahead of the shoot, the more the team understood the direction that I wanted it to go in, and the easier the shoot was to bring to life. Sure enough, the shoot went incredibly well, and for the first time I truly felt I was telling a real story with my work.
So how can you add elements of story into your own work? It doesn’t have to be long and complicated – get as creative and elaborate as you like.
First, grab a pen and notebook and let your ideas flow – jot down things that you’re interested in – stories about you and your past, or anything else that speaks to you. There’s no right or wrong here, just write it all down. When I was writing my list, I included things like:
- Growing up in Switzerland
- Being an Artist
- My love of horses
- Moving abroad
- Loving the color blue
- Long dresses
- Hot summers
Once you’ve got your list, pick a concept that really captures your interest and begin to flesh out what that idea could look like as a photographic story. Search for images on Pinterest or in magazines that capture your idea and create a visual file. If you prefer to use paper and pen, create a mind map on how you’d bring your story to life.
An important thing to remember is props. Relevant props truly bring an image to life. If you want to tell the story of an artist, it makes complete sense to include tools that an artist would use, like a canvas, paints or easel. If you want to tell the story of a hot summer’s day, it might be things like ice creams, or deck chairs.
Location will also play an important role and has to make sense. If you can’t get to a specific location you want, could you recreate it in a studio via set design?
If you’re working with a team, you want to make it as clear and easy for them as possible to understand your idea and your story. Get extremely detailed! In my experience, photoshoots do best when you’ve got a team of talented people working alongside you who truly understand your vision. Take the time to write a short blurb, explaining what your story is about, how you want the images to feel, what you want them to look like, etc.
Overall, have fun! You should feel a connection to what you’re creating. It is a guaranteed way to not only build a stronger connection to your work for yourself, but also with the people viewing it, elevating your work to a whole new level. Try it – you won’t regret it!