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How to Tell Stories in Street Photography

Why is street photography so great– and how can we make ‘better’/more engaging photos? My suggestion: tell more engaging stories through your photos!


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Have fun, make up a fun story for yourself!

For example take my famous ‘Man sleeping by the water’ photo in Marseille. If you look at the photograph, what story do you tell yourself in your mind?

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For myself, I can come up with a lot of stories. For example, I imagine him as being shipwrecked. I think of the ‘Cast Away’ (2000) movie, where Tom Hanks is stranded on an island by himself and his best friend “Wilson” (volleyball). Or I can make up a story that the man is just enjoying a nice nap, basking in the sun. Others have said that they think the man is perhaps dead.

The point is this:

Leave the interpretation up to the viewer. The more ambiguous, open-ended, and mysterious the photo, the more engaging the story your viewer can make up.


Empowering the viewer to make up their own story

‘How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001.’ – Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick said it well for his film: 2001 Space Odyssey; the purpose of the film wasn’t to “explain” the metaphors/morals of the movie. Rather, leave it up to the viewer to come up with their own interpretation. And this is a key to making a piece of work timeless– this mystery is what keeps the viewers/spectators guessing. And this is what makes art, literature, and film/cinema/photography so fun.

For example, at the end of the movie ‘Inception’ with Leonardo DiCaprio, you’re not sure whether the ‘reality’ is real or not. The toy top keeps on spinning, and then it cuts to black. The viewer ends up getting “blue balled” — and wonders,

“What really happened?”

You then end up debating with your friends, or even going on IMDB to read the analyses by other people. The point is this: Don’t over-explain your photos to your viewers.

No fancy explanations in titles

You can do this by just keeping the captions of your photos simple: [City, Year]. For example the sleeping man photo at the beach, I just call it: “Marseille, 2013”.

By keeping your titles more ambiguous, you allow the viewer to make up their own story.


Curiosity gap

There is this concept called the “curiosity gap”, which means: when there is a gap or hole of understanding in something, it stokes curiosity in us.

For example, if you are watching a movie and someone is about to get shot by a gun, and the movie fades to black, you’re left with a gap in the story. You wonder to yourself, “What happened next?” This makes you curious what happened afterwards.

In photography, how can you create a curiosity gap? Some ideas:

a. Don’t show the eyes of your subject

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First of all, you can obscure parts of the subjects’ face. For example if the viewer cannot see the eyes of your subject in a photograph, the picture will be more mysterious, because there is (literally) a gap in the person’s face.

b. Decapitate the head of your subject

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Or you can do something easier: decapitate the entire head of the subject, and make their face not visible at all. This makes the viewer very curious and ask themselves, “I wonder what the person in this photograph looks like? I wonder what expression is in their face?”

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c. Curiosity gap is sexier.

This is why the most sexy/seductive women are the ones who wear outfits which leave (some) room for the imagination to wander. A woman who is totally naked isn’t interesting to a man. Rather, a woman who can strategically cover up and create a “curiosity gap” in men, will draw more attention.

d. “What are they looking at?”

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Humans are nosy creatures. We are curious to see what others are looking at.

So for example, to make a more engaging photo (like the photo above of the man looking into the peephole), have someone looking into something. By not being able to see what the viewer know what the subject is looking at, the viewer will wonder:

“I wonder what is on the other side? I wonder what they are staring at?”

Even as a fun social experiment: go to a crowded area in the middle of a plaza or busy intersection, and just look up and point. See if others will also look up.

Another example: look at this photograph of the older man in Tokyo playing an arcade machine:

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The question in my mind:

“Why is such an old man playing this game, when he could just play this game on his smartphone?”

To me, it looks like escapism. I actually photographed this picture at around midnight in the “Shimbashi” (business-salaryman district in Tokyo). Why isn’t he back at home with his family? Does he have a family?

Making a photograph that asks more questions than provides answers makes for a good open-ended photograph/story.


Strangeness

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Another way to tell better stores in photography: incorporate an element which is strange, weird, or a little ‘off’.

These kind of surreal photos will encourage your viewers to wonder,

“WTF is going on???”

This is good– because it attracts attention to your photos. The worst that can happen to you as a photographer is that someone will briefly glance at your photo, and move on.

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What you want to do is lure your viewer in — and you want to encourage them to stare at your photos, linger, and try to come up with a story in your photo.

As a tip, think of sensationalist news (tabloids, and random ‘viral’ stories you see on the internet and on website/blogs).


Juxtapositions (contrast between subject and background)

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In this photograph, I was walking on the streets of Istanbul and saw this man sitting in the hotel lobby. I made a photograph which juxtaposes (contrasts) him with the woman in the painting in the background:

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I also like the composition and framing here:

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Interesting characters

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Another tip: try to photograph interesting characters. People who have unique outfits, or unique “looks”.

As humans, we disdain the normal and boring. We are attracted or interested in weird/strange/unusual/different people.

Try to approach and photograph strangers that don’t follow the typical herd:

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To tell a better story, contrast or juxtapose them with another character in the background. For example this man with a face tattoo, and the juxtaposition with the woman in blue in the background (actually an H&M advertisement):

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Love

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Photograph couples. Like an old couple kissing.

Or wait for the couple about to kiss (the dynamic tension BEFORE the ‘decisive moment’):


Lack of love?

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Or photograph bored couples, or couples who look like their relationship isn’t going so well (based on their facial expressions and body language):

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Stress

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You can see a lot of pain/suffering/stress in people via their hand-gestures and body language. For example, a finger or hand pressed against the forehead.

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Or the look or feeling of dismay:

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Impeding danger

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Eye-contact is one of the most intense things you can get in a photograph. Why? Eye-contact (in real life) is an aggressive act. If you made eye contact with the wrong person in the past from a neighboring tribe, it could mean potential death.

One of the scariest things in street photography is to photograph a stranger (either with or without permission).


Social commentary

To also tell powerful stories, make social commentary through your photos.

a. Black kid with gun

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For example in the photo, there is a black kid with a gun, with the arm of his father? sticking out a $10 bill, with a tattoo of the same child on his arm?

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Ask yourself the question:

What kind of social commentary is the photographer [ERIC KIM] trying to make about race, violence, and inequality in America?


b. Woman with pink shirt + 2 red bulls

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If you look at the details of this photograph, what do you see?

What is in her left hand? Two red bulls. Ask yourself the question, “Why does she have two red bulls in her hand? Is she drinking both right now? Is she going to the gym or coming back from the gym?”

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Then inspect her right hand. What is she holding? A cigarette! Why is she smoking if she is a gym-goer? (I think she is a gym-goer because of her hot pink shirt, which is very “LA” as well as her black-white adidas track jacket):

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Then without making a moralistic judgement about the woman herself– ask yourself:

What kind of lifestyle does she live?

Thus, judge her lifestyle (not the woman herself).


c. Homeless man with missing tooth

What does it mean for a homeless man to have a sign that says, “No lies here, I need a beer!” (while smiling)? Should his honesty be rewarded?

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Political commentary

What does a ‘Lifesize standup’ cutout of Obama mean?

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What does a photograph of an US soldier filling up gas at a Shell station mean?

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Story-telling through shadows

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Last example (for now) of story-telling in photography: What does the shadow of the woman’s nose look like?

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You guessed it: Pinnochio. What does Pinnochio do? Lie.

So if you connect the dots together: what kind of open-ended story does this suggest to the viewer?


Conclusion

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To conclude, story-telling runs in the veins of human beings. Humans have been able to transfer culture, social rules, and information via stories.

Homer was the first epic poet to tell stories (that have endured for millennia). And I think all great art is mostly about story-telling.

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To learn more about story-telling, watch kid movies. Read kid books. Watch Disney films, Pixar films, or any stories from your childhood. Children are the most creative and open to stories. Why do we lose our ability to tell stories or understand the world through stories as we get older?

Never stop shooting and telling fun/engaging/personal/emotional stories!

ERIC

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By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher