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Photography Challenge – Tell a Story

In my photography career, I've gone through many incarnations of myself. I've done food photography, commercial studio and industrial photography, did portraits and weddings for years, been an industry rep for an album company in New Zealand, sold my work as fine art in galleries and shows, worked in a camera store, and now teaching photography.

After having done commercial and commissioned work for years, shifting into thinking like an artist was challenging. So, this month I'm going to give you the same challenge I have participated in a few times. I learned a lot in the process and I hope you do as well.

Photography Challenge – Tell a Story

Your challenge is to create a photograph that tells a story – specifically, one that represents a poem or a song. It will force you to think about the message and story your image is telling, and not so much on the technical stuff. This is a good thing.

This is how I suggest you approach this challenge:

  1. Find a few songs or poems that appeal to you. Ones that you relate to or like the message or story being told.
  2. Think about how each of those makes you feel. What is the story being told? Then think about how you could show that with a photograph. How can you tell the story?
  3. Select the poem or song that resonates with you the most, and that you think you can create an image to represent it.
  4. Then set out to create an image to tell that story.
  5. Rinse and repeat. If at first, you are not successful, pick a different song/poem and do it again. Even if you are successful, keep doing it because it's a great exercise to stretch your creativity muscles.

Bonus points – work with a writer

If you want to add an extra twist to this challenge, find a writer to collaborate with directly. I have done this a few times and it's always rewarding and eye-opening for both artists.

I've had writers create poems about some of my images. That was interesting in that they didn't always see the same story in my images that I did, or that I had intended people to see.

My images of Peru inspired two writers to create poems about them. This image inspired the poem below. These are the hands of an 84-year-old lady in Peru.

Hands of Time

The toil of your life
is carried in your hands in
the earth stains upon and
under your fingernails
as much as in the thinning
gold wedding ring around your
wrinkled finger.

Your hands in their tired
silence upon your lap
go beyond language barriers;

and words are not needed
to tell your story.

–  Sandra Mooney-Ellerbeck

This is a good exercise to show you how your images are being perceived by viewers, especially other creative people. You may find that they see more stories in your images than you ever imaged.

This is the same lady as the image above. This one inspired a different author to write about it, see her poem below.

Old Woman

old woman
on your face lies a gift of fields
stories unfold in the pleated furrows and long tales spill
across the white fence of your smile
phrases slip easy through narrow gaps
where pickets have fallen away
and I lean into the clear space of your calm contentment

I roam free in the gift of your eyes
ponder dimensions of the dusk you now inhabit
while the ripened sun spins out of your path

I am drawn by the gifts you carry in your hands
parrafin tapers antiqued and bent
and the bronzed shelf of your arm
warm against my back

Primed for your last hour
you are comfortable
in the history of your bones

– Barbara Mitchell

Creating images that tell a story

Creating an image for a written piece presents a different set of challenges and issues. If you're working directly with the writer you have the opportunity to chat with them and really understand the message of their work. Ask them how they “see” it coming to life in an image, and set about trying to create that.

Here's an example of a collaboration I did with a writer. She had already written the poem and it was my job to illustrate with an image. I talked to her and learned about the meaning of the poem, and what it represented to her. This is what I came up with:

Here is how the original image looked as processed in Lightroom with basic adjustments.
Here is the image after tone-mapping (HDR processing) to pull out lots of texture and detail in the tree, especially the roots, because those are the “toes” in the poem for me.
This is the final image for the collaboration project. I did a lot of creative effects on it in Photoshop including adding a texture overlay, grunge edge to the image, and of course the poem overlay. Click on this image to see it larger and read the poem.

Tips for storytelling

So how can you tell a story with your images? Here are a few tips for you:

  • Make sure you get close to your subject, close enough to have a clearly defined subject or focal point. Storytelling it much harder when the viewer isn't sure what to look at in your image.
  • Choose the kind of lighting that is appropriate for the story. This has to do with the quality of light. Hard or harsh lighting has more drama, while a soft light is more gentle and well, soft. Which of those tells your story better?
  • Play with image editing or processing. Will the story come across better as a black and white image? Or do you need strong vibrant colors? These are little tweaks you can do to your image in the processing stage, as I have done above with the tree to make it look more weathered. New to photo editing? I've reviewed a bunch of RAW processors for 2018 here.
  • Go for mood, over technique. Yes, sharp focus and exposure are good things to have in an image but don't be afraid to let go of perfection a little bit in the name of making art. Some of the best fine art photographs in history are not perfectly sharp. Should we critique Henri Cartier-Bresson?
  • Incorporate movement into your image if it's appropriate. Perhaps the story is not a static one and representing movement or adding a blur to your image might tell it better. Experiment and see what works best.

More examples

Here are two more examples. Both were written about my images, to the image came first and the written words later. But you can see how the images really do tell the stories well so they should give you some ideas.


In your thin scruffiness,
black and white against
sand and stone, I think
of your well-groomed, fattened
relatives guarding luxury
in North America, as you
guard for the hand in the south,
that feeds you, no matter
how sparse, the dry bone.

– Sandra Mooney-Ellerbeck

Young Girl

you are the definition of endurance
standing firm against the backdrop of your native country
and I am the same
wedged between the busy streets and avenues of my own

we are no different really, you and I
your eyes a watercolor of secrets
tracking survival from the dusty grounds
pulling in a wish, inventing a dream that might save you
while my own secrets flock to my eyes
from the weathered places I track daily
a lost mother, a broken union between man and woman
things too painful from the past pushing in

we both stand in our dry surroundings
contemplating life through the history of our fortunes
yet we are not broken by the paths we are forced to take
we breathe scraps of hope into our skin
and the flush of them covers us
makes us into something strong
turns us into a signpost of resilience.

– barbara mitchell

How to participate in this month's challenge

In order to participate in this challenge and be eligible for this prize you need to:

  1. Upload your favorite image that tells a story in the comments section below – if you have more than one you can share as many as you like but only one will count as your entry.
  2. Tell us the poem or song you use – what is the story your image tells?  Give us a link to the song on YouTube or the lyrics or words of the poem your image represents.
  3. Tell us about your experience doing this challenge?  Was it hard to tell a story with one image? What issues did you struggle with? What did you learn by doing it?
  4. Upload your photo, poem-song info and what you learned by the cut-off date of December 31st, 2017. I'll give you extra time on this one. The winner will be randomly selected from all the entries in January 2018.

NOTE: please do NOT save your images as TIF (they will be too big to add in the comments, must be under 2mg) and please do NOT email your images to me for critique. I cannot give personal critiques by email, leave your images below and I will comment there.

Please note: if you do NOT fulfill all the steps above your entry will not be valid. Just adding the photo will NOT be counted as an entry. I want to hear about it too, please. The point of these challenges is to help you learn something new – tell me about that.

You may post more than one photo, and do this as many times as you like over the month (you can comment as many times as you like, and share as many photos as you want – but it will be counted as one entry per person). The more you practice the better you’ll get at it, like anything – so share away. I also encourage you to share the link to this challenge with a friend, so you can do it together!

One last example – poem below.


Your image overlays an image
of my daughter, your age,
posing like you on a sun-heated rock;

her youthful beauty glistens
in the riverside spray, dancing
in the sunlight, the look
of affluence on her skin, while
the dust of your surroundings
is worn with poverty
on your skin.

She is looking outward, like you, but
your eyes draw in sand stone scarcity,
while her eyes draw in abundance;

she is wearing a blue hat, the blue
of a cloudless sky, a crisp Canadian
mountain morning, blue
with endless expedition;

even the layered stones
behind you seem empty
in the uneven cracks, where
no moss, or vine can emerge
with flowering life, yet
life is in the clothes you wear,
ancient with story and survival;
and you in your orange hat
are cheered color: a bloom
of hope in the parched
Peruvian backdrop.

– Sandra Mooney-Ellerbeck

The Prize

This month the winner will have a choice of prizes between:

So get shooting!


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