Digital Storytelling

By Brian Watkins

In copywriting we often use personas to better understand who we’re writing for. What are their goals and frustrations? What kind of day might they have had by the time they’re stumbling onto our pages to read? Those are tough questions to answer, but even in our speculations we can glean a lot of insight.

I promise this isn’t a post about copywriting, but the basic premise holds in still and motion imagery.

Knowing what a likely viewer is expecting or thinking about when they open the magazine, flyer, brochure, or website can inspire a lot in the moment behind the camera. Having a background in writing where one can rely on being verbose with prose to convey an idea, this kind of photography fascinates me with its apparent succinctness.

Therein lies both the beauty and the challenge.

One Moment To Create A Journey

In the same way that as a writer you may only have a few sentences to capture someone’s attention, it strikes me that being a photographer means carefully curating moments. You might have a multi-page spread in a magazine, or several images in a brochure to promote something. But what separates a momentary pause before moving on from a real pause?

The kind of pause where a mental journey is happening.

Maybe the tone and composition of the shot elicits a memory from childhood or “the good old days”. Or maybe it tugs at the heart with visions that are both beautifully personal yet tragically remote.

The strongest memories always seem that way, don’t they?

The comparison holds even a little further. They say that good copywriting is invisible — that if it’s well done the reader just accepts the words and isn’t conscious of what’s taking hold till it’s there.

They aren’t thinking, “Wow, that sentence makes me trust this business!” It just happens.

I think clever photography is the same, here. One image is a moment in time, sure, but the viewer kind of takes it all in at once. They aren’t thinking about what into it to make it what it is: the lighting, the angles, the tone, how tight or wide the shot is, etc. In that moment it takes on an identity of its own, an amalgamation of all those things. Hopefully the user isn’t thinking as much as feeling. 

Technical Empathy

People generally hire photographers for their technical skills, similarly to how people hire SEO guys for their web know-how even though the job is as much a creative endeavor.

The technical aspects of photography, from having the right camera and equipment to the experience in best using it, really only affect the how. Those are vehicles to arrive at the proper shot.

Capturing an emotional shot requires a keen understanding of others’ journeys. Not simply what is beautiful, but why?

Art doesn’t hit the mark with everyone, but when it’s thought-out well for a recipient who can appreciate it, sometimes there don’t need to be words. Understanding all that informs the what in the shot. Without an insightful grasp of finding the ‘what’, all the technical skills in the world will only produce a well-staged yet forgettable shot.

Like a grammatically correct but bland piece of writing. I can appreciate this comparison rather significantly as I cross-discipline, and the depth of what creates an emotionally honest piece people remember or comment about.