Overuse of a term, or word, can lead to the desensitization of its meaning. Most popularly overused, in my not-so-humble opinion, is the word ‘epic.’ It is, to me, the worst word in the world now. It didn’t used to be, but it is now since people who have no true understanding of its meaning, and clearly have the vocabulary and imagination of a glass of water, use it to describe everything from their breakfast sandwiches to their camera straps. When this happens, I tend to be unable to restrain myself from being physically sick on them. The photo world is not exempt.
In photographic circles, there are a few terms that tend to induce milder, but similar symptoms. There’s the ever popular, eye-twitch inducing, ‘capturing moments,’ which seems to proliferate on photographers’ ‘about me’ sections like some sort of unwanted West African virus, and then there’s ‘storytelling.’ These sort of buzzwords, or terms, allow someone to pitch totally re-iterated, unoriginal ideas, but your photography probably doesn’t need them.
Storytelling in regards to art in general, and photography specifically, is a sensitive area. I’ve met a country’s population worth of photographers who truly view themselves as storytellers. I fear though that they are swept up in the buzzword hype of it all, trying to make more of their work than it often deserves, or are just plain mistaken. The way so many photographers depict their work with their words would have you believe they all went to Juliard on a full ride, and spend their lunchtimes cutting the crusts off their cucumber sandwiches trying to figure out the full backstory as to what Leonardo was doing to give Mona Lisa that smile. They’re not.
There certainly are some who manage to undeniably tell a story through their work, but the frequency of photographers referring to themselves as storytellers would have many believe that all photography is storytelling. I’m not buying it, and I’m not alone. Stefan Sagmeister, a designer/artist hailing from Austria and now New York, has some ardent words about the topic.
Having designed album covers for the likes of Lou Reed and The Rolling Stones, to name a few, in a recent interview has some choice opinions of the creative types that label themselves as storytellers. You can sit through the two minute video, and I would recommend it, but if you’re at your office let me break it down for you – he thinks it’s “bullsh*t.”
Stefan believes that not everyone is a sotryteller, and the modern vogue of calling yourself one is detrimental. He further goes on to list those he believes are true storytellers; feature film makers, and novelists. How do you feel about this? Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
Stefan’s words are a bit harsh. My feelings on the subject are significantly more subdued. If his words come at you like the rush of a cuban espresso shot, my feelings are more like sipping an afternoon tea. The reason I bring this topic up, is because I’ve been getting asked of recent of how my photography tells a story, and even how to help someone turn their photo work into a story. I don’t think my photography makes me a storyteller, and I don’t think being a storyteller with your photo work makes you a better photographer. I do love a good story, and I could wax-romantic about pretty much anything if I had to, but why? If the need arises to say something through an image, then ok, aim for that, but it is my opinion that a photo can be appreciated for just what it is, and be beautiful and perfect. Yours probably is.
So are you a storyteller? Or have you lost the plot?