Love of Visual Storytelling
In early March, we gathered in Mérida, Mexico, coming from around the globe, driven by our love of visual storytelling. For me, teaching a workshop with National Geographic photographer John Stanmeyer was a bright point, because I knew I would learn from witnessing how he worked with photographers and be moved by guiding photographers as their stories evolved. In the first few days, I got to know personalities, to see how Alex from the US and Susann from Germany had academic minds that were drawn towards long interviews while Helen from England was simply thrilled to be working on a project about cenotes in which she could spend her days taking underwater photos.
What I learned from John, which I had already witnessed when we worked together for National Geographic, is that he is committed to whatever task he puts his mind to and will not rest until he has thoroughly worked through a story idea or a series of photos. In those early days of the workshop, we stayed up to 1 or 2am, talking over ideas, editing, giving advice about how to pitch a story. I felt alive in every sense of the word, excited to see photographers take an idea and hit the ground running to test it out in Mérida, thankful that I could learn from them and they from me as we created powerful stories. Five days into the workshop - exactly half way through - we had to cancel it due to the spread of the coronavirus, which was sad but necessary. I’ve been thinking about the beauty of being with a group of people that are doing what they love and who continue to work on their stories during the coronavirus. I continue to believe that stories are what hold us close and inspire us in times like these.
Here are some storytelling takeaways from my time with 13 photographers:
Commit to your story and challenge your definition of dedication. In visual storytelling as in writing, the time you spend with your subjects and the level of intimacy are evident. Ask if you can spend the night at their house, witness their routines early in the morning or late at night, get to know their lives so that you get beyond stereotypical images and discover tiny, deeply meaningful details.
Don’t go on a tour. Often very nice people who you interview or photograph want to show you their town or their business or to have you go to meetings with local officials. Make sure you are the one setting the agenda because photographing a tour produces photos that look like someone took you on a tour. Laura, a photographer from Mexico, who was working on a project about shamans, got taken on several tours, and in order to get more authentic images she had to stop the tour and just spend time with the shamans.
Don’t be afraid of people or of rejection. Often fear prevents you from digging into a story. Leo, a photographer from the US, was initially shy about talking to people he photographed. However, by the last day of the workshop he had a breakthrough and spent an entire day in a family kitchen. His photos show the beauty of the relationship he built with that family.
There is no roadmap for a story which can be terrifying. Let relationships and ideas develop organically. For example, Ishbel, a photographer from England, started working on a story about water scarcity. One day, she went to visit a man and his wife who owned a cenote, and the man went over to a metal pole near the cenote and started banging and yelling a name. Slowly, a crocodile made its way through the water and climbed up onto the concrete edge, and the man leaned down to pet it. Ishbel captured the image and I will never forget it because the crocodile looks clearly pleased that he is being petted.
Make decisions out of joy, not fear. While it is normal to worry, the driving force for your story should be curiosity, eagerness to learn, connect, see and understand.
In coronavirus times, you can and must continue to tell stories. Keep a journal. Make a video blog. Write poetry. Take photos from your window and the confines of self-quarantine.