40,000 years ago, on an Indonesian Island called Sulawesi, a hand was stencilled onto the inner wall of a cave using coloured pigments. This simple statement is the earliest example of our species’ desire to to visually communicate to others and create a permanent impression onto our surrounding environment.

Painting, photography, cinema, television, digital photography, 500px, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; we may have adopted more advanced tools to play with since the days of pasting crushed berries onto stone was considered cutting edge but the core desire to tell others about how we experience the world using visual practice has not changed.

'Untitled' by Erin Patel

In school, I was always told that a story needs a beginning, middle and an end – although not necessarily in that order. How can you get all of that into one photograph? Can 125th of a second’s worth of light exposed onto a piece of metal really contain a full narrative? A photographer’s aim is to communicate a message by controlling and adding elements together to construct a message ,or, by recording naturally occurring events in such a way that creates an emotional connection between the viewer and the photograph.

Whether studio or location based, constructed or reportage, the photographic work that I produce always contains elements of storytelling. I endeavour to present the viewer with imagery that encourages further questioning and analysis beyond the surface reading. To see a viewer double-take one of my photographs in an exhibition is one of the biggest compliments that I can receive.

In 2014 I walked into the scene of a minor car accident. Thankfully nobody was injured, but the driver of the car was trapped inside and the emergency services were assisting. A large crowd had gathered and were all filming the unfolding events on their mobile phones. Over my career I have found great inspiration in photo essay publication The Picture Post and documentary photographers such as Giles Duley and Jim Mortram. I was interested in the behaviour of the crowd more than the incident and wanted to try and portray a sense of narrative, to give the viewer as much insight into my point of view as possible.

I decided to tell try and form a story by turning my camera on the crowd rather than placing emphasis on the car and the following image was made.

'Two car crash' by Erin Patel

On the more upbeat end of the photographic scale, I apply the same methods to my studio portrait work.

People typically come into my studio asking me to make a representation of what they look like. I make it my aim to go beyond this and capture who they are. To tell their story and capture their personality.

'Various portraits' by Erin Patel

I make it my aim to go beyond this and capture who they are. To tell their story and capture their personality.

Before making a portrait, I always take time to try and understand the subject as much as I can. I look for character traits, unique expressions, physical attributes, clothing, even items of personal importance; a pocket watch, favorite book or piece of sporting equipment. Any signals that will help me to communicate their message and tell their story.

 

Inclusion

“The addition of visual elements that combine to convey a message, theme or character.”

'Tag artist' by Erin Patel

I made the portrait Tag Artist, London 2015, when out shooting images for the PhotoKey 7 Pro Urban Template Pack. It was 2am and an unexpected opportunity came to photograph a graffiti painter in an atmospheric, abandoned skate park. Usually, I might try and clear the frame of any distraction but in this instance, the litter, the dirt, the bright and clashing patterns all help to build a story. The subtle placing of his spray can in his more hidden hand and emphasis of his empty near hand is an attempt to show that he is a tag artist and that there is an element of secrecy that surrounds this practice. (Although he was anything but secret about what he was doing!)

Using inclusion to drive the narrative of an image is really at the core of composite photography and a technique that prominent photographer and founder of Composite Planet, Josh Rossi, practices in his work.

“I didn’t want to just snap one shot and be done. I wanted to include a lot of different elements that told a story. That’s when I started getting into compositing. I realised that I could actually create the images that were inside my head. I never thought that was possible before. I became literally obsessed with it.”

‘Possessed’ by Josh Rossi

A composite photograph begins as nothing, an idea perhaps, but essentially a photographer has a blank canvas to begin with. Rossi’s image Possessed, is from a series of composites inspired by Disney’s fairy tail feature film, Maleficent and encaptures the narrative of the whole tale. Good vs Evil, innocence lost, corruption, jealousy and magic. And how? Simply by the visual, composite elements that Rossi has chosen to include.

 

Exclusion

“To create room for mystery and questioning by excluding key elements of a narrative.”

 

'Chandos Pole Street' by Erin Patel

My image, Chandos Pole Street, was an attempt to create a portrait of a man without actually portraying a person. An empty mobility chair parked on the street implies that it has an owner, but who? Where is Chandos Pole Street? Is the Swan & Salmon a pub? What kind of person would drink in here? I feel that, often, a more interesting story can be told if the viewer asks their own questions and creates their own narrative.

Here is an image telling the story of my daughter’s first birthday. The viewer can quickly establish what is going on as well as get a sense of mood and tone through the inclusion of the single candle on a cake, however, the exclusion of a main subject creates more of an narrative impact.

'Untitled' by Erin Patel

 

Expression

“Actions used to communicate emotion, thoughts and feelings.”

'Soprano's season 4' by Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz is the photographer behind the incredible image campaign for the hit HBO TV show, The Sopranos. Each season, she would release a composite image that would hint to the fate of the characters. Leibovitz was so successful at building a narrative into these images that I used to try and avoid them as I would be able to pick out spoilers! Eye contact, physical contact, facial expressions, clothing, posture; These techniques have been used by artists for centuries and are still a successful means of conveying a story.

Tony Soprano is the main character in the show. Note how he is positioned at the front of the scene and is very visible with his cigar; a technique used to emphasize his importance in the photograph’s narrative. The lady sat at the table in the pink jacket, is Tony’s wife. She is turning away from Tony and has created a barrier between them with a wine glass creating an awkward tension. This echos the relationship problems that the two characters suffer in the show. This image contains eleven subjects but these narrative devices work just as well with single people too.

The beautiful thing about using expression to tell a story is that expression is all around us all the time. You don’t have to take the carefully constructed approach like Leibovitz, stories are everywhere: you just have to look at what’s around you.

'Untitled' by Erin Patel

This impromptu image was made using my iPhone when I found my daughter investigating an old Minolta that has been in the family for three generations. Over the four images, we see her expression changing from being unsure to engaging with the camera, turning into enjoyment and then laughing aloud! Such a simple, very obvious storytelling device but effective nonetheless. I keep this image next to me on my editing desk as it inspires me and reminds me that we all start our creative journey somewhere.

 

 

I hope that reading this post inspires you to think about your own visual storytelling through photography and maybe even to get out there and try out some of the techniques that have helped me over the years.

Enjoyed the post? Subscribe to our mailing list for the latest PhotoKey news and be sure to follow us on twitter and Facebook.