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News & Insight

Is A Photographer A Storyteller? Famed Designer Stefan Sagmeister Thinks That’s “Bull***t”

By Kishore Sawh on September 5th 2014

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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.

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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?

Thoughts

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?

You are not a storyteller – Stefan Sagmeister @ FITC from FITC on Vimeo.

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Matthew Riley

    I like to think of photography as the advertiser for the story or stories. A great picture of some far off place that someone may never have heard of can inspire a person to travel there and experience there own story. Or a photo of a war torn area in Africa can shed light onto the words in an article. The photo helps bring the story to life.

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  2. Michael Moe

    haha you gotta love the austrian temper! ;) some people would describe it as rude, but me (as an autrian myself) would describe it as totally honest!

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  3. Bárbara Herrnsdorf

    And I think that his pompous rant might qualify as evidence as to why so many industry blog posts are dedicated to reminding photographers and creatives to hone in on and sharpen their people skills; to become the person people want to work with and this man clearly missed those posts…it’s all in the delivery. If he handled this differently his message would have been the same but it would have been better received and he’d come across as a lot less self-important, judgemental and aggressive.

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  4. Bárbara Herrnsdorf

    s/b “others” are floating about.

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  5. Bárbara Herrnsdorf

    Everyone is entitled to an opinion and I understand his contention but life is too short to get upset about this frivolity especially since it happens everywhere all the time, perhaps ever part of human nature. I say, the way to stay happy (not seemingly bitter) is to focus on doing/making whatever art you do/make regardless of whatever misplaced or overused descriptive monikers other are floating about.

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  6. Ian Moss

    Telling it as it is. Brilliant.

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  7. Jesse Rinka

    I had to check my ‘about’ section on my website…Proud to say there were no references to story telling or capturing moments. Phewww!! ;)

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  8. Mark Iuzzolino

    I wish I was good enough to tell a story.

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    • Mark Iuzzolino

      After thinking more about this and re-reading some of his comments on how upset he gets over the use of some words, I really think this guy needs to get a life. I mean REALLY? His comments are “epically” stupid.

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  9. Matthew Saville

    I do know a handful of people who are in fact “storytellers” with their camera. But yeah, most people are just looking for that next buzzword to try and define themselves and get more business. It’s not necessarily a bad thing though, unless you’re truly misleading clients about what to expect when you attempt to “tell their story”. Other than that, I have nothing wrong with it, it’s just marketing / branding at its finest. Or not-so-finest lol…

    =Matt=

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  10. Chuck Eggen

    Funny, I was discussing this with my wife last night. Why is it that when you put a video camera in a photographers face he/she thinks they are a philosopher. All these grandiose words and phrases that they think will make them look so intellectual and philosophical. And of course there is always the key phrase, “I just tell a story.” The only story most tell is in front of the video camera. Anyway, just my thoughts on this subject. You’re free to beat me up now…

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  11. Greg Silver

    Can one picture tell a story? IMHO – possibly (not always).

    Can a group or sequence of photos tell a story? Most often – YES!

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  12. Jeff Ladrillono

    A feature film maker is a story teller but a photographer isn’t? It’s an interesting choice to deem which one is or isn’t in his definition a storyteller. When you consider what goes into creating a feature film…Is the director the story teller? Or is the director of photography that lights the scenes to create a tone/mood the storyteller? Or is the editor that takes this raw material and makes a film in post the storyteller?

    I do agree with him on one thing, all “storytellers” aren’t created equal. After that, the rest of his rant is a bunch of bullshit from his high-horse.

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  13. Kim Farrelly

    I shoot people in the face for money, what!

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    • Austin Swenson

      I actually got a pretty good chuckle out of that one!

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    • Eric Sharpe

      Hilarious!

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    • Austin Swenson

      I think that photos should either depict/record something the way it happened or evoke emotion, and that’s why we take them, but I don’t think that you’re supposed to see a story in every single photo. I would agree in a far less aggressive way with Stefan. There are lots of different application for photos than storytelling.

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    • Dre Rolle

      There’s a t shirt i saw the other day that had this quote…bought it instantly

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  14. Eric Sharpe

    I tend to avoid using words to describe me, or my creative works that everyone else uses. Just seems unoriginal. These days, I just use the simplest words I can think of to describe whatever it is I’m doing. I don’t know that it works any better or worse for me though! :D

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