The Stories Behind the Photos

©Anna Shelton

So I do have this conviction that if people could somehow put themselves in the place of other people viewing their photographs in the future, their work would improve. That audience includes your heirs, your friends, your future self. I’ve been taking pictures all my life, but there are so many things, so many people, so many places, that were important to me, that I don’t have pictures of. In the future, neither you nor anybody else is going to care a whit about how saturated your reds are or how little noise you’ve got in the shadows. They, and you, are going to care what’s in the pictures—the stories behind them, what they meant to you, why they were important. I simply believe that if we were to try to second-guess posterity, it would make our work better. – Mike Johnston


Who do you think will view your photographs in the future? Or will remember them? Like Mike says, for most of us, I believe it’ll likely just be a small group of family, friends and descendants. If we’re lucky and this internet thing continues to evolve maybe there will be small communities of future photography zealots who will spend time digging into long dormant websites and Flickr streams (if these even exist into the future!)

While archiving and “image permanence” are important and worth discussing I’m actually more interested in what Mike says in the excerpt above because I think it resonates with a great number of photographers, especially those that document their lives and their immediate surroundings.

I’ve made my case for photographers to write more. Since then I’ve discussed the topic with several people and have heard some interesting ideas and thoughts. Some have agreed that words are important in adding context and providing a backstory, while others have said that photographs should be able to stand on their own. It’s interesting to think about because I think both perspectives have a point. Over the last few weeks I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, what matters is where I’m viewing the photographs.

If I’m paging through a book and there are words and stories, I more than likely will skip over them and just look at the photographs. I might go back later and read it if I really like the work but on first glance it’s about the photographs. When I’m looking at work on the wall I’ll probably read the statement quickly but other than that all I care about is the photographs.

That makes me a hypocrite right? I certainly could be. However, over the last few weeks I’ve noticed something else from speaking to many photographers. There’s a certain degree of frustration and dissatisfaction with photoland on the internet (there always is isn’t there?)

For some, there’s simply too many photographs floating around on a daily basis. Nothing is going to change about that. But another frequent complaint is that much of the work that’s published is stripped of any context, with many people simply spewing out photograph after photograph on blogs and Tumblr. I doubt that’s going to change either, and for many that maybe what they want from photoland.

©Don Hudson

What I think might change is that people who are invested in experiencing photography on the web will likely start to scale back and be much more selective in what they choose to read and look at (hell, I had friends doing that a few years ago already. They were right. I didn’t listen.)

Amongst the people I’ve talked to this is where we get to the importance of writing. They’re looking for more context and a more immersive experience from photography on the web (several blogs and magazines are providing this already).

The most interesting bloggers and editors write about the projects and work they’re featuring. They tell us why it’s important, why they appreciate it or an idea it evokes. As a photographer telling the stories behind the photos, adding context, narrative and generally presenting your audience with something new and original about the work will be more engaging, and more creatively rewarding for yourself I believe.

That’s what I’d like to see more of  from photographers and publishers and I don’t think I’m alone. We should strive to not only showcase the work, but to provide new insights and stories about it. The classic way of going about this is the interview. That’s a good start but I think we can find other creative ways to doing it as well (a future post).

Looking back at the work that resonates with me, and the work that I’ve featured on LPV, I’ve found there’s always been a strong affinity for the stories behind the photos, which is maybe why I’m so drawn to the combination of words and photographs. As I’ve dug deeper into photography I’ve grown to appreciate all different genres and styles. I respect the type of photographers who take on difficult issues and tell the stories of other people. We need that work and we need those photographers.

But I think we also need the photographers who work day jobs (The Insiders), love photography, study it, and spend their time documenting their family, friends and immediate surroundings. For these types of photographers, I think the internet will become a great tool for telling these stories more in depth to a growing community. We really have no idea how future generations will use the stories we’re creating. I’m not sure thinking about that really matters either. But I do think if we focus more on telling stories, creating context and narrative around the work, photography on the web will be a much more enriching experience.

  • Edwin Firmage

    I used to be on the side of “the images should speak for themselves” school of thought. But the more I write, the more I read about photography, and the more photography I look at (and take), the more I want there to be a textual companion to photo works. 

    I think much of it, as you point out, is due to format. It’s difficult to add any sort of meaningful text on a place like Flickr or Tumblr (et al), possibly because an artist statement could come off as pretentious or narcissistic, and interviews don’t really work in that format. 

    On the printed side of things it may be easier to do, but like you said many just skip the text altogether. 

    What I wish people (editors, photographers, curators) did more is have afterwords. Let the reader/viewer look at the images without any text or moderation, and then have a textual companion that elaborates on the work. 

    I think this is important though, as people are increasingly bombarded with imagery we tend to assimilate things immediately and then forget about them out of necessity. There is no permanence, despite that being the ultimate goal of photography. The internet makes this incredibly easy to do. The desire for text may be a desire to slow down, and process the image in a more intellectual rather than visceral fashion. 

  • CJ Chilvers

    I wrote about this last year at A Lesser Photographer ( I totally agree and think the numbers prove it. Look at the circulation of National Geographic vs. just about any photo magazine. The writing ties it all together.

  • Camden Hardy

    I think this is something that will auto-correct itself through innovative bloggers (such as yourself) who are constantly seeking to define and improve the virtual experience.

    It’s going to be interesting to see how “photoland” (great term, by the way) evolves as we all collectively hone in on what we’re looking for in photography on the net. I’m not so sure the stories always need to be told, but as an artist I appreciate it when writers take the time to explain to their audience why the work is important.

  • Anonymous

    oh, that’s horrible. corrected. thanks. 

  • Jack

    Just a small correction. It’s Mike Johnston, not Johnstone.

  • Jack

    Just a small correction. It’s Mike Johnston, not Johnstone.