How To Tell A Story With Your Street Photography

Street photography is about as varied a genre of photography as it gets.  There’s comical street photography, juxtaposed street photography, fine art street photography, photo-journalistic street photography, and plenty of just plain bad street photography to name a few…  But really there are only two main types of street photography, the type that tells a story and – the rest.  Telling a story with your photography, street or otherwise, elicits an emotion in the viewer, is memorable, and can literally change the world we live in.

Image by Robert Capa

Image by Robert Capa

Photographers like Robert Capa created images that documented life altering events and told stories that had lasting effects on the world beyond their lifetime.  His photos of WWII told the story of D-Day, a battle that greatly influenced the outcome of the entire war.  His photographs brought the reality of what was going to the doorsteps of civilians all over the world.  His photographs influenced lives.*

* Capa took 106 photographs during D-Day on Omaha Beach, all but eleven of them were destroyed in a post processing accident in the Time photo editing labs (how would you like to be that technician).  The 11 photographs that survived are called the Magnificent Eleven (Wika-freakin-pedia)

Migrant Mother by Dorthea Lange

Migrant Mother by Dorthea Lange

Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” defined an era, the photograph is considered the face of the Great Depression.  Her ability to convey a story with her photograph had such an impact that it created a public outcry which forced the Federal Resettlement Administration to send food and supplies to the migratory labor farm she was photographed at in Nipomo, California.*

* At the time of this photograph Florence Owens Thompson (the woman in the image) and her family were living off of birds her children killed and vegetables from a nearby field.  Sadly, she and her 7 kids had moved on by the time the government sent aid.  Nobody knew who she was until she revealed herself through a newspaper article in 1976.


Not to be confused with wanderlust

Great stories seem to always leave readers wondering what is going to happen from chapter to chapter…  Otherwise, what gets us to flip from one page to the next?  Memorable photographs that tell a story and change lives often leave us wondering what’s going on.  What relationship does the main subject have with his or her environment or other subjects around them?  This wonder spurs discovery, we (curious like a cat) decide to find out what exactly is happening and engage the photograph rather than simply viewing it and moving on.


Diversity by John Barbiaux

Using an image like the one above I could tell you a story about race without ever typing a word.  Using a single photograph like this I can tell what I would consider as a short story, add another photo like the one below I could convey an entire novel to you about racial inequality in St. Thomas.


Inequality by John Barbiaux

Capturing images that leave viewers wondering is a great way to engage viewers and tell a story but you need more than that, you need relationships.


Everybody needs somebody...

Relationships between subjects or relationships between the subject and their surroundings creates context and depth to the image as well as the story.


City Blizzard by John Barbiaux

One of the most common mistakes I see in street photography is the photographers inability to give an image context or create some sort of feeling with his or her photograph.  This can happen for a number of reasons but more often than not it’s because the photographer is using a telephoto lens (perhaps because of a fear of getting close to their subject) and this give the image a cropped overall flat look and feeling.*

* Once again, there is an exception to every rule…

The reason 35mm and 50mm (and even 28mm) are so popular with street photographers and photojournalists is because they are able to get closer to their subjects while retaining some of the surroundings which gives context to what they are shooting.  If you get too close with a telephoto lens you may end up over isolating your subject and taking away from the possible story or context.

Pittsburgh 2015

Urban Rest by John Barbiaux

Relationship are not limited to interaction between two or more humans, you can create images that convey a story by capturing the relationship between humans and their environment as well.  The image above speaks volumes to me about the relationships between humans, architecture, and nature.  What do you see?

Why Tell A Story

Give Your Images A Voice

Did you know you can literally speak through your images.  Not only can you speak but you can speak in multiple languages, even clicks and expressions like you’d find deep in the Amazon forest.  The voice your photographs convey transcends any other type of communication in the universe.  Photographs are the most powerful communication medium you have access to, no matter who you are or what resources you have.  Psychologist Paul Ekman studied micro expressions, the almost indiscernible movements our faces/bodies make when we feel emotions, and found that out of the 10,000 expressions our face is able to make about 3,000 are tied to emotions and all of them are fairly universal across culture, continent, and race.

The point is, if a photograph is worth a thousand words and none of the words need translated then you’re left with a medium of communication that has no barriers.  If you had something important to say, something that could change the world, then what better way to get your message to the masses than by photograph?  Maybe telepathy…

Do you create photographs that are powerful enough to tell a story?  Want to learn how?  Join me at an upcoming Street Photography Workshop in Pittsburgh or New York City, you can check this page or click “Workshops” at the top of the site for a list of upcoming workshops.  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.