Developping Your Vision: Visual Artistry or Photo Storytelling?

You have to be one or the other. The most memorable photographers are both.

Today, storytelling is at the heart of many business practises, from sales pitches to C-suite slideshows. It is being commoditised by marketing departments to sell shampoo and by brand owners to stimulate engagement with customers. Storytelling is so deeply engrained in the human psyche that it gives communication much more impact. It also provides your number 1 opportunity to create more powerful and lasting photographs.

Old ottoman home in the area of Sultanahmet in Istanbul - Sony A7r & Zeiss FE 35/2.8 ZA

Old ottoman home, Istanbul, Turkey (c) Pascal Jappy

Photographic storytelling can be as simple as “I saw that flower in a window and found it beautiful” or present a multi-layered analysis of the world surrounding the photographer. Complexity doesn’t add to the quality of the story, clarity does.

In the photo above, the story revolves around this narrow street in Istanbul with houses that are all very consistent with one another even though the central one is obviously the lead actor. It is about the mix of ancient architecture and modern satellite dishes, about the grubby walls yet very elegant stance. To tell this story, I made sure the walls were strictly parallel and the whole picture geometrically correct (I did not want it to feel derilict). I encreased the structure of the wall. Apart from the two gulls in the sky telling us we are not far from the sea, there is no life in the frame. Had a yound child been plyaing with a bicyle, the story would have been about this child, not about local architecture and processing would had to make the child prominent rather than the walls. There is still artistic license here as I took the liverty to alter the tonal range significantly and to darken the top of the frame very strongly. But this is clearly a photograph showing an area of Istanbul as I perceived it: old but proud, dirty but very beautiful in its own way.

Photographers tend to use different approaches to telling a story and personal technique, experience and pshycological makeup will make your reaction and rendering different from anyone else’s (unless that is, you try to conform to a “been there, look at me in front of the XXX” code of conduct, in which case, this is definitely not the blog for you, ahem).

Artists tend to add a thicker layer of personal vision to their imagery than other photographers do. Their works tend to be less about objective analysis than a personal take on life and technique. It’s often more about the artist herself than about the scene.

In the tube  (c) Pascal Jappy

Ethnic tube (c) Pascal Jappy

While this might seem like criticism – and certain artists, particularly some surfing on the new investment craze, are narcicistic humps of dung – a huge majority of successful artists are simply able to produce a consistent body of work telling a story about their view of the world that is so compelling that people want to collect their photographs (see my interviews of Michael Kenna, Michael A. Smaith and Paula Chamlee, for instance).

In the photograph above, I’m not telling anyone a story about the London underground other than “look at me, I like colourful abstracts”. Other photographers might have reacted very differently to the two African ladies and their colourful dresses next to me. They might have created a reportage about lives of immigrants in a big city or about a local carnival. I simply loved the colour mix and tried to produce an expressive image.

Some photographers fall in a sort of middle ground, displaying strong consistent vision and a will to engage with the audience on its own terms. To me Michael Reichmann  (The Luminous Landscape) and Trey Radcliffe (Stuck in Cutoms) fall in that category. Both have  a strong and consistent style but both are more interested in sharing techniques and experiences than in selling their work. Even for these people, a personal vision is essential. Trey gets serious heat on many photography forums. And – while unpleasant personally – it’s as essential to his business as it is for your progress to displease just as much as you seduce. It is far better to polarise opinions, some loving you, some having nothng but bad things to say about you, than to be ignored by everyone. People talking trash about you are … talking about you.

Northern Lights in Laplan (c) Pascal Jappy

Northern Lights in Laplan (c) Pascal Jappy

Never try to please everyone. In fact, never try to please anyone but yourself. Becoming a successful artist implies a strong and consistent vision throughout your photographic career sustained by an opinionated (about techniques, social issues, mysticism …) artist’s statement.

My personal photographs, those I print and hand on walls are mostly abstract and dominated by the play of light on a scene. The subject doesn’t interest me all that much.

These two lines aren’t really an artist statement, but they constitute a starting point and you should try and think along similar lines to define your interests.

As a blogger writing posts and this tutorial, my statement is much stronger and I try to actively promote a personal point of view – as opposed to following the tourist or forum masses – I try to help others understand their visual interests and develop their vision and the technique necessary to put it into pictures and I focus my efforts on promoting enjoyment and personal fulfilment.

The name of this website, Dear Susan, is based on the author Susan Sontag who produced a brilliant set of cutting essays denouncing the use of photography as a social convention and as a proof of evidence (of visiting a location or of an event) and which have transformed my photography. I strongly recommend reading her short book “On Photography”.


Write an artist’s statement for yourself. You do not have to show it to anyone or seek approval.

Cyberdog (c) Pascal Jappy

Yberdo (c) Pascal Jappy

There is no set length but aim for a page to begin with. Include your photographic interests (nature, street, macro, travel …) your sources of inspiration, the artists that have had the greatest influence on you (not only photographers, but painters, writers, musicians …), your values and interests in life, your favourite techniques (large format photography, film/digital, HDR, selenium, …).

No one will judge your statement, it is only meant to be a guide for the rest of this tutorial.

Once you are happy with it, review your photographs and try to find correspondences with your statement. How consistent are your results ? Would you chose different photographs based on your statement or alter your statement based on your selected photographs. Take your time, be honest with yourself and don’t worry if your opinion changes over time.