Thinking Photography

Great photographers are also editors – they are always thinking photography

“I don’t just take photographs, I think.”

Don McCullin

Storytelling requires thinking photography

Thinking photography is about about making considered decisions from the outset of a project so as to end up with the story you want to tell.

Like all stories, documentary is an edited version of reality. The four sides of a photographic frame is an edited version of a particular environment or situation. The time, the place and the people present are all editorial choices. I can photograph the London Underground at 8am in the morning, at the height of the daily work commute, and create a different sense of people and place than if I photographed at 11pm at night as people return from a night out. My choice of time is an editorial decision that is informed by the story I am trying to tell (or should be).

Similarly, what I choose to frame is an editorial choice. A photograph is four solid sides put around a scene to make an image which is actually within a much larger scene, and was chosen to convey a particular message. The decision about where to put the frame is editorial.

Documentary makers, both film and photographic, often start with a hypothesis, however loose, that they want to explore. This creates focus and efficiency.

As someone who has made a number of documentaries for corporate clients I have read fairly extensively about the history of documentary films and my favourite book on the subject is called Imagining Reality – the Faber book of Documentary.

Richard Leacock, one of the pioneers of what is now called Cinema Verite but was then called, Direct Cinema, explained in an interview that he started out with a structure in mind and the creative process was to film without interference or interviews. ‘Now the strange thing is that in filming these (the structure), we find that there are two adventures. You have a sort of exploration: you go out and film, and all your acts are final. You can’t go back. You can’t say Please do that again. If you missed someone coming through a door, you’ve missed him: that’s it. Don’t say a thing. You’re making judgements and each judgement is final.’

Peacock went on to explain that editing could also reveal unexpected challenges, not unlike the ones we encounter as photographers: ‘We find that editing is often a process of discovery that what we thought was the structure doesn’t seem to work. It’s hard to say exactly what I mean by that but it doesn’t seem right….Often we discover a new kind of drama that we were not really aware of when we shot it.’

“A photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought”

W. Eugene Smith

Thinking Photography. Country Doctor walking over grass against dark skies.
Country Doctor

In 1948 W. Eugene Smith created a photographic documentary story called Country Doctor for Life Magazine. Smith described the process of creating the story: ‘I bear in mind that I have to have an opener and closer. Then I make a mental picture of how to fill in between these two. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I’ll lie in bed and do a sketch of the pictures I already have. Then I’ll decide what pictures I need.’

Smith is clearly describing the process of editing, or choosing, which aspects of the Doctor’s daily routine that he wants to capture in order to create a compelling story. It’s classic storytelling. He’s thinking about the final form or presentation of his work and presumably, he’s considering his audience as well.

“I have to have an opener and closer. Then I make a mental picture of how to fill in between these two

W. Eugene Smith

Sequencing images

The Magnum agency describes Smith’s work: ‘The Country Doctor works in series: the arrangement of images providing viewers with a carefully crafted snapshot of [Dr] Ceriani’s existence. With the order of his photographs being as important as each individual frame, falling into disagreement with publications over their edits was a common occurrence for Smith. Ultimately, however, his work is so distinctive because it takes the format of the traditional photoessay while infusing the stories with a psychological depth and intricacy of narrative heretofore unprecedented in photojournalism.’

In 1955 Smith was asked by the Magnum agency to deliver 100 photographs that could be used to celebrate the centenary of Pittsburgh. What followed was an example of trying to create a story without focus or structure. Smith was supposed to spend three weeks photographing in Pittsburgh but instead he stayed for three years. The man who compared his role as a photographer to that of a playwright, was trying, not just to write one play, but a whole works. The result was over 21,000 photographs of which just a small fraction were published as a photobook in 1959.

Smith was undoubtedly a brilliant storyteller and an exceptional documentary photographer but there is something else in his description of the storytelling process that we should not overlook – research. Smith could only envisage the opener, closer and the images in between if he knew something about his subject.

This is where I think many photographers fail to set themselves up for success.

Often we have an idea or a theme and we hope to discover more about it as we photograph and sometimes this can work but oftentimes it won’t. Don McCullin could visit a war zone and discover a story while he was there but he was experienced in the theatre of war and focused. For McCullin it wasn’t like Smith and Pittsburgh.

Sequences images and editing down from the hundreds or thousands to tell a manageable story is an art in itself, it’s a feeling you get when you study the relationship between images. We want images to flow and convey more of the story as they are viewed – just like reading a book.

For some photographers, editing and sequencing are the least enjoyable part of the work, but it’s the part of the process when the story is actually created.