Taking Pictures - Telling Stories
Dec 15th, 2018 • Uncategorised
Taking Pictures - Telling Stories*
This guide is intended for people who need or wish to document the environment and its defense - A starting point for making picture sequences and videos that make the story clear.
This post is, in part, informed by a review of my work from John Austin - Survey II 1994 - 2017
I started environmental photo documentatio in 1972, but the most important work was in the south west forests of Western Australia from 1994 to 2003, with occasional additions in 2013.
Triggers for the content of this post were re-reading Truman Capote's opening paragraphs to In Cold Blood. Capote first described the location and its feeling, followed by introducing the main characters and then the story. In filmic or photo-doco terms establishing shots, medium shots, protagonists and the story, Read Capote's book, it is a masterpiece of layered story telling.
Even older than Capote's text was Geoffrey Chaucer's opening prologue to Canturbury tales - "When that April with his showres soote/The drought of March has perced to the roote/And bathed every vein in swich licour" - A perfect Spring setting for a some very rude stories.
To tell a visual story we need pictures, sequences and videos that are easily understood to an uninformed viewer. We are in an age inundated by images, so the ones made to help save our forests and waterways need to be strong and engaging. And as the cycle is almost hourly we need to keep putting out new work. Well, not me, you. I still use film cameras so am out of this set of info-cycles
Documentary clarity is crucial, and if the story is not clear no one will give heed to it. Image strength is also crucial. The two aspects must be fused to make images that demand and command attention. Show that the health of the environment is the most crucial story at this time. Most attention is given to social problems and to mass migrations, but without a healthy and sustaining global environment, no progress can happen
To help make cogent pictures, sequences and videos here is a list of important steps. Story or Concept; Research; Planning; Photographing; Review and finally Publication (editing and showing)
There is a modern idea that reporting shoud be "fair and balanced" or "objective", meaning showing both sides of an argument. Forget that crap, take a stance and be partisan and prejudiced. (See my earlier post regarding Martha Gelhorn).
The story has to be something that attracts and engages you, it is impossible to be engaged with a story that you find boring - no engagement equals no energy
Research, if you are documenting damage to lakes or wetlands set up a file on the locations, their hydrology, loss of peat, acid sulphate soils. Get the maps. As well as this information, make notes on the main protagonists. What companies are conniving with which government agencies to gain access to what resourses? What is the potential damage? Who is setting up to defend the environment?
For Old Growth Forest Logging do the same, starting with coup maps and logging quotas
This information will inform the way you record your story and enable you to defend your stories when questioned
There is a lot to go in here, still or video etc; aesthetic approach, intended audience. Aim at an untutored audience rather than your mates
As well as digital cameras, a lot can be done with a mobile 'phone camera. With a mobile phone stories can be rough edited and uploaded once you are in range of a tower. If using a mobile 'phone in video mode hold it horizontally - I repeat HOLD MOBILE 'PHONE HORIZONALLY IF USING IT FOR VIDEO. Holding it vertically results in the dreadful video snatches we see on TV news boradcasts
You will learn what suits you after the first couple of attempts. (Black and white film and darkroom printing is for misanthropic septuagenarians, one of them is enough!)
Doing it. Earlier I referred to Capote's In Cold Blood, a cinematic sequence of introductions. Start with an establishing shot that shows the location and context of the story. A collection of stablishing shots can be made any time, make them whenever you can, you don't yet know what you will need
However, always start with some establishing shots at the beginning of the event or location you are documenting, use wide angle, showing the whole scene. Next go in for a medium angle view showing the area of interest, do this from two sides
Next get in a close as you can, the four positions forming a diamond shape. Having got those images recorded, become more fluid and let the situation and light dictate what you photograph next
Wide angle lenses used close give a feeling of engagement - to get the viewer right into the subject, rather than the distancing effect of a telephoto, go wildly wide if you can, but get in close
Also keep making cut-away images, coupe logging information signs, protest banners and stuff. These are also useful as evidence images
Make notes. Many point and shoot cameras and mobile 'phone cameras record not only the time but also the precise location in the EXIF metadata. EXIF metadata can be overwritten, but no one ever bothers, and many people don't even know it exists. Make notes on light, who was there, distances driven, to whom copies of images have been sent, all the stuff that is easy to forget after the event. This is all important information, information that may be needed in court
When you are in a quiet place review what you have and see how a story can be told from it. Don't be kind to yourself, if you think your work is great, it is time to stop. Be careful whom you ask for advice. This is one area where an objective critical response is needed to help you advance. This is often the point at which we feel most alone.
Learn to never under any circumstances crop an image, if an image needs cropping your seeing and camera management was bad. Don't argue and don't crop.
PUBLICATION (EDITING AND SHOWING
Sequence Editing is another area where we could do with help, but can rarely find it. A good editing position is to cut rather than include. It is too easy to put in too much, making the finished product long and indigestible. We are telling a quick story to grab attention in C21
Showing, this is where my experience lets me down, I came from an age of shopping centre displays and town hall slide shows. C21 has moved on from there and I am not in a position to say anything more. . . .
*The title was coined by Liz Reed in 2004, and used by the first FotoFreo event
Lead image from Lane State Forest protest, action mages from Penny's Dragon, Wattle State Forest 1988. This is an extended story and only a few sample images are included here. If anyone questions how I got so close without being arrested the answer is I did get arrested, but not on this occasion. I proudly include my criminal hindering convictions in my CV. The cameras used were Nikon F with 2.1cm and 35mm Nikkor lenses and 400 asa film
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