Don’t make pictures that tell stories. Just make stories.

 In Photography Tips, Street Photography

When you set out to make a great picture, there’s a high chance that you’ll fail. The light could be poor, your subjects could be having a bad day, you may be stuck in your own funk. There are so many things stacked against you, and no one likes to be a failure. So just give it up.

Instead of setting out to make a great picture, just set out to make a story. Stories come from many places, and they can sneak up on you, so be aware. You might do like my friend, Mark Toal, and follow the green light at cross walks. You might try to talk to people you meet as you walk down the street. If you do, you’ll find that you make a story with whomever you meet. You’ll get a story to take home, they’ll get a story to take home, and chances are that they’ll let you make a picture with them, too. Here’s an example from my life.

In my second year as a photographer, I was walking with a bunch of other photographers in Logan, Utah. We were on one side of a back street, and on the other side a man was walking by a wall which was covered top to bottom in green ivy. The man was wearing a stark white shirt, and carrying a bright red bottle of Coca-Cola. I skipped across the street and said, “Say, I’m practicing photography, and the colors of the wall, your shirt and that Coke bottle make some intriguing contrasts. Would you mind if I made a picture of it?”

He acquiesced, and we made a couple of pictures, eventually abandoning the Coke bottle and the wall. His name was Samuel.

I found out he was visiting from the East Coast, but he’d be in town for a few more weeks, playing in the orchestra for the opera. What do you know, he accepted my invitation to come back next week for our class and make some portraits in the studio! We had a good time doing that, too.

Well, the next summer Samuel didn’t come to play for the opera, but he did the next year and let me know he was coming. This time, we had the opportunity to make a picture for the photo contest at the Cache Valley Cruise-In, a huge car show. Samuel and I walked the fair grounds looking for the right place to make a picture. Well, when Samuel saw a bright red 1966 Ford Mustang he wouldn’t go any farther without shooting with it. We found the owner and he let us use his car to make some pictures. We made several good ones, but I have one favorite of Samuel laughing with delight in the driver’s seat.

Well, two years later, Samuel and I were both in Logan, Utah, again at the same time and of course we got together to make some pictures. Samuel got to meet my little girl (our latest adventure), and I got to catch up with his life, too. Catching up was the objective of our meeting; the pictures were just an excuse. Still, we made a few good portraits in the alley by my old studio.

Welders use a torch to join two pieces of metal together. The joint is called a weld. Did you know that they also use a chemical called flux to allow the metals to meld into one another? Without the flux, the metals won’t flow and join, but the flux evaporates and is long gone while the weld remains. That’s like me and Samuel making stories. We use pictures to strengthen our weld, our friendship, but it’s not about the pictures. They’re just a good excuse to get together. They were a good excuse to meet him on the street six years ago, and a picture was a good excuse for Samuel to contact me this morning. He was walking by a car and texted me a picture of it. It’s a ’66 Mustang. The pictures are fun, but they’re done. Our friendship was built on making pictures, but it runs out they’re just the flux.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but stories are worth a thousand pictures. You can imagine all the pictures associated with my stories with Samuel, even though I haven’t shown you any yet. when you set out to make great picture, you might fail; but when you set out to make a story, you can always succeed and who knows but what you’ll start a story and a friendship that lasts long after the pictures are done.

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Showing 4 comments
  • Keith French
    Reply

    Levi your practice of finding the story has changed the way I approach a stranger with my camera. At the conference you asked us not to be creepy, then you described it. Well I was borderline creepy, Eeeewww. Did’t realize it by your definition but you were right. This weekend I’ll be back out in public with my camera. Looks like a good time to practice story swapping. Thanks Levi

  • Bette Kauffman
    Reply

    Love this concept, Levi! Much street photography leaves me cold; it seems so opportunistic. Making stories with people changes the game.

  • GEANNIE NEWELL
    Reply

    What a great experience.

  • Levi Sim
    Reply

    Thank you all for coming shooting with me–er, story making with me 😀

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