Visual Storytelling in photography

Photography is increasingly used as a form of visual storytelling.

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Lascaux Cave Art, c. 17.000 BC

Photography is increasingly seen as a form of visual storytelling, whether it is the personal story of the photographer,told in metaphors and symbols, or a story about the social and political world,told through the lives of people in the remotest corners of the world. Storytelling, once reserved for the world of literature, is now appearing in photography. How can photography, which only consists of still images, tell stories at all?

Twenty thousand years ago in the caves of Lascaux, ancient tribes drew horses and bison in a highly artistic style, often with a suggestion of movement and the animals cunningly placed in relation to each other. There are drawings in which lions hunt bison, just like we see today in an exciting nature film. These drawings tell the story about the life of the first European inhabitants, who mainly lived by hunting. These Paleolithic rock drawings were the first form of visual narratives in the history of humanity. In early Christian painting too, images often have the character of a visual story. The stories in the Bible had to be told to illiterate people, meaning that the stories had to be visualized.

Centuries later, painters used the Bible as a source of inspiration for their stories. The painting Christ Healing the Blind (1570) by El Greco, in which we see a scene which, like the hunting of the bison, could very well be a movie. The Dutch painter Rembrandt also created many vivid paintings with a narrative character. The painting Sacrifice of Isaac (1635) is particularly powerful because it is based not only on a well-known Bible story but it also dramatically portrays how Abraham is being prevented to kill his son at the very last moment.

© Henry Peach Robinson | Fading away, 1858

Photography and story

In the history of photography, the depiction of stories has played a role, albeit occasionally a marginal part, from its early beginnings. For instance, Oscar Gustave Rejlander combined several negatives into big allegorical tableaus with a moralistic character. His fellow painter-photographer Henry Peach Robinson made sentimental photomontages as his work Fading Away (1858), with themes based on the history of painting.

From the beginning of the twentieth century, social-documentary photography was the ultimate field of narrative photography. In illustrated magazines, Eugene Smith was one of the first photographers to create the photo essay. He made the classic photo essay Country Doctor (1948) for Life, in which he made a portrait of the arduous life of a country doctor with a series of photographs. Even more famous was his photo essay Spanish Village (1951), the story of the poor Spanish village of Deleitosa. By telling the simple peasant life, Smith clearly drew the big story of the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, an approach characteristic of all social documentary photography in that era.

Photographic realism in documentary photography prevailed initially, but in the 1980s a new development arose. Staging was introduced, and photography became less realistic and more associative. The dichotomy in documentary and autonomous photography, canonized by the famous statement of John Szarkowski in his book Windows and Mirrors, (Szarkowksi, 1960, 1978) determined the photography of the twentieth century. Szarkowski divided photography into mirrors, the romantic expressions of the sensitive photographer, and windows, photographers who looked at the bare reality. The autonomous photography, divided into European surrealism and American meditative nature photography, or straight photography, was seen as the mirror of the soul of the photographer. In contrast, the documentary photography was considered the medium that the reality described, window on reality.

Macintosh Computer Commercial 1984

Photography as a novel

There is a tendency to capture a new concept for the old dichotomy between documentary photography and art photography: visual storytelling. This form of photography is not constructed from its relationship to reality, but rather from the underlying story, from which arises the possibility of a free interpretation of the concept of documentary photography. Visual storytelling is indispensable in the modern, contemporary photographic landscape. In the field of visual storytelling, photography is not judged by aesthetic values, but by its narrative power.

The artistic value and the representation of reality both become subordinate elements: photography does not need to be art and does not have to proclaim truth. Today, photography is often seen as a visual way of telling stories. Just as a novel consists of many chapters, the photo story should be a coherent tale of many photos. Photographers who work with the concept of visual storytelling, make interpretations of the world around us in an essayistic way.

Why has storytelling recently become such a popular form of photography? To answer this question, we have to look at the broader picture. The story is not only a new ‘method’ in photography but also in other areas of our culture. In the branding of large companies, storytelling is the original adagio - corporate storytelling is hot. Companies know well that a story has a connecting and emotional character and therefore communicates more effectively. Steve Jobs was known for selling all his products as a story in an exciting movie with bad guys and the ultimate good guy. When he introduced the Macintosh computer in 1984, the new computer was depicted as the liberation from George Orwell’s dystopian world represented in 1984. Also, NGO's have found their way to storytelling: nonprofit storytelling. NGOs know well that a helpless situation does not lead to generous gifts. They tell stories that bring hope and invite the citizen to help.

“For us, what works in the photo essays is we’ve found greater and greater resonance with the personal narrative. Being able to establish a person who faced some challenge or a hero in a narrative. It’s defining that person by more than the obvious.” This said Christine Nesbitt Hills, the photo editor of Unicef. (Glickhouse, 2016)

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Survival of the art  

There are several reasons explaining the popularity of stories. In his book On the Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd wrote that stories appeal to the way our brains functions. The story provides humans with a powerful and meaningful pattern that makes it easier to record information. Our brain is better capable of remembering the structure of a story than loose, dry facts. The story creates the connections that our brains are always looking for. “If information is chaotic, it lacks meaningful pattern, and we cannot understand,” according to Boyd.  (Boyd, 2009)

The keyword, according to Boyd, is ‘pattern’. We are always searching for pattern recognition, starting with the pattern of stars in the sky. Our animal brain needs to process an abundant amount of information to survive and therefore has been trained to detect and respond swiftly to meaningful patterns. We need specific structures and patterns to remember and to generate emotional responses. "Our perception of pattern and of deviation from pattern produces strong emotional reactions. Art appeals to our appetite for patterns at multiple levels." The story is, therefore, the most appropriate form in which works of art can be moulded.

“The hunger for meaningful patterns translates into a hunger for story,” says Jonathan Gottschall in his book The Storytelling Animal. (Gottschall, 2012) Gottschall sees the story as an essential element in our evolution: "The storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation. It allows us to experience our lives as a coherent, orderly and meaningful experience. ” Not only brings the story coherence in our personal lives, but it is also the cohering force in our social life.  

Narrative structure

To what extent it is possible to tell a story in still images? Is the narrative structure of a novel useful as a collection of images? A story in literature has a sequence and a plot, while photographic images are captured in individual moments without a sequence. Many visual stories are not sequential stories in the traditional sense, but mere visual references to underlying stories.

The primary capacity of a series of photos is to imply a hidden story, in which case the onus lies on the viewer to reconstruct the story behind the picture with the aid of accompanying texts, or in the case of a highly subjective set of images, distil his interpretation of the story. Single images have a primary descriptive and referential character, referring to real stories through metaphors. But although images inherently do not often have a strict narrative style by themselves, they are still able to be narrative. The single image might have a kind of story, which Klaus Speidel called the ‘iconic narrative’, which reveals itself by the chronological order in which the beholder deciphers the total image. At the other hand, the capability of storytelling in a single image is vehemently denied, as does photographer Mark Meyer. (Speidel, 2018)


The most crucial asset of photographic images in the world of communication is their emotive character. Our natural approach to photos could primarily be pinned down to our emotional response, meaning that a single photograph, without context, can trigger unintended sentimental reactions, with a random and personal connotation. However, pictures gain more communicative strength when the viewer can connect them to a story.

Storytelling photography operates within the context of the larger story. Single images in the context of a series can suggest the idea of a story, even when there is no sequential story involved. An additional text, informative or poetic, which tells the story, can add a narrative suggestion to the visual information. But art photographers can choose not to use any text to evoke a virtual, non-documentary story.

Nowadays, documentary storytellers have a wide range of narrative possibilities because they are no longer tied to a strict representation of reality, which narrows the conventional distinction between them and autonomous storytellers.


A picture without a story is doomed to remain superficial and simply remain an aesthetic pleasure: a beautiful picture without meaningful content. On the other hand, a photo with a story often has a deeper meaning. Even in a single image, a story can linger, but only as a part and in the context of a more extensive series. However, the story in photography seldom is linear, and could better be referred to as a so-called open story: a story without a beginning or an end.

It is not a coincidence that contemporary photographers have discovered multimedia: a mix of images, sounds, texts and videos, to tell their stories. In our world of the mass spread of mobile phones and digital media, photography is the storytelling centre within the multimedia mix that engulfs us. Visual storytelling replaced the single photograph, that was used to show the decisive moment of Cartier-Bresson.

But is storytelling the only holy grail in photography? That remains to be doubted. Many landscape or topographic photographers would argue the opposite. They, like the forerunner Stephen Shore, would say that their photography is an act of describing the world. Storytelling is hot, but not the only form photographers can adapt to their work.

Boyd, B. (2009). The origin of Stories. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Glickhouse, R. (2016). How UNICEF Harnesses the Power of Visual Storytelling. Retrieved from Medium:
Gottschall, J. (2012). The Storytelling Animal. Mariner books.
Speidel, K. (2018). Klaus Speidel. Retrieved from Academia
Szarkowksi, J. (1960, 1978). Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960. Moma.

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