You Are Not A Storyteller

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There Are 24 Comments On This Article.

  1. It’s funny this was a topic between some friends of mine this morning. It seems it is true how new young photographers burst onto the scene with images that are sometimes very good but little to no substance. I think these days the talent pool is very deep but shallow at the same time because no one incubates and develops their voice. It is just repetition with very little original thought. I stepped back several years ago from commercial photography because I realized I was heading in the same direction. So what if my time is not now? It’s more important for me to love what I do for me not because of what everyone else thinks is valid.

  2. I call bullshit. Everyone has a story to tell, whether it’s 3 sentences or 3,000 pages or 2 hours or 1 image, whether you are a dishwasher or design rollercoasters. People who are “in the business” tend to arrive at this bullshit arrogance that they somehow know, intuitively, what constitutes whatever “essence” it is of anything, whether it’s writing or painting or photography or car racing. While Sagmeister bashes who “isn’t” in the club, he fails quite well at defining the criteria of membership into the “storytellers club.” I just read Stephen King’s “On Writing” and he certainly talks a lot about storytelling and considers himself a storyteller.

    How many filmmakers began as a result of watching films? How many musicians became musicians from listening to music or attending concerts? Perhaps he meant you aren’t a filmmaker just because you watch films, but that’s pretty obvious isn’t it? You may have a story to tell, but if you don’t put it out there where people can experience it, is it actually a story?

    Plus, how can he tell someone they aren’t a storyteller when he only draws bullshit pictures? I think a storyteller should be the only person who can tell someone else they aren’t a storyteller. And, even then, that’s a tenuous argument. Storytellers don’t just sprout from the ground fully formed.

    I think Sagmeister is just upset that nobody considers him to be a storyteller.

    In the end, this interview has no value and only serves to showcase his arrogance and perhaps the arrogance of certain other “establishment” fgures.

  3. Ok I’ll bite. I just assumed that my phone would be ringing off the hook when Storytelling became the buzz of the land. Kinda like Ralphie when he decoded the Little Orphan Annie secret message. Thanks a lot Rob.

  4. I love this! I could not agree more. I’ve seen so many photographers and agents talk about storytelling, and it usually comes off as bullshit. There are some photographers who do expansive projects which could be described as storytelling, but didn’t that used to be called reportage??

    Generally our job is to create images which hint at a feeling so the viewer can – if the image captivates them – attach THEIR story too it. And frankly even that is probably an over-estimation. Most campaigns are really about providing the appropriate eye-candy to make the consumer pause for 1/10th of a second longer over a page or banner or billboard so their clients brand name can register.

  5. I saw this when it was first posted to the web and can’t agree more. Most “story telling” in photography is BS. There is no story whatsoever in your series of similar topic images. None whatsoever. I don’t care if your a photo journalist. You’re images alone don’t tell a story – they illustrate some WRITER’S story. The only exception to this rule is a series of images that actually have a logical order that can be followed, more or less a still photo version of a silent movie. You’ll never see this done by a photographer. Why? Becaue they aren’t telling stories. Never have, never will. What they can do is capture a moment in time and let people wonder what the story behind the image was… or they can read the article it illustrates or the caption that explains the image. Photographers are not story tellers, they are story illustrators.

  6. Barry Bald-knees

    Well, glad that’s sorted out then… Sagmeister has spoken. Can’t argue with facts like that, eh? In my opinion, Mike Shipman has it about right when he calls Sagmeister’s “bullshit arrogance”.

    Try define “storytelling” and you get into a world of semiotics and semantics, all relative to differing contextual situations. So, knocking “storytellers” (whatever that may be) seems pretty much like a straw man argument to me. Sagmeister is an excellent designer and has achieved much, to be sure, but this one smacks of trying too hard to be “insightful” for the sake of it. Feel another TED talk coming on…

  7. I’m so glad I came across this post! I completely agree with Sagmeister. The term has become ubiquitous, overused and misleading – a marketing hype basically with no relation whatsoever to the meaning of story. Yet, many of us photographers crave for the depth and journey a story will take us on. Is it at all possible to tell a story with a single photo? I think it is! But it certainly involves a deep understanding of the philosophy, structure and mechanics of storytelling and studying the art of “traditional” storytellers, authors, filmmakers, comic artists, poets. And then there is of course the question of how to translate this knowledge to a still. Not an easy task, but an extremely interesting one. I recently wrote a series of articles on the subject for Retouching Academy. Maybe I can invite some of you to join the discussion.

  8. Clearly Mr Sagmeister is referring to the accepted definition/use of the word ‘storyteller’. Ask 99% of the population what a ‘story’ is, and they won’t say photograph! If storyteller = photographer, then doctor = theologian. And yes, a dictionary will tell you the latter, but nowhere does it state that photographer means storyteller. So get real and put storytelling into the context of (everyday) life. Before a child goes to bed, instead of reading them a story – just show them a photograph and get an extra 15 minutes in front of the TV. Would they be content with that? They say a picture speaks a 1,000 words, but it’s not what’s expected, and the world we (all) live in is governed by expectations. Good stories, told well, engage, captivates attention and may entertain an audience. They usually comprises of, at least, a beginning, a middle and an end. The next time a photographer announces they’re a storyteller – why not ask them to expand, to articulate or maybe even say “I’m all ears… tell me the story then!” I’d like to hear (from these ‘storytellers’) WHY do they need this descriptor, what are they trying to sell us on (the client, customer, etc.), that they are more than a photographer? In what way do they feel inferior, and compelled to use their B.S. story? Sure, we all tell ourselves stories (hey, we’re ALL storytellers then!), but do others hear your message or take it as disingenuous hyperbole? Well, that’s probably enough of my perspective, narrative, meme, et al. BTW, I’m a photographer… I like to think – an artist… certainly creative; however, I’m not a supercilious, narcissistic social illiterate! Or is that a story I’m telling myself…?

  9. Photography at its most meaningful and impactful is most like poetry, and not much like story. But poetry sounds even more pretentious and is practically a dead medium, so photographers and others like the roller coaster engineer can’t really go around saying “I’m a poet”–life is hard enough as it is. “Poetry” is mostly what they mean when they say “story” though.

  10. fashion shooter

    I agree that he comes off as pompous. The least Mr. Sagmeister should do here is to define his understanding of the term “Storyteller.”
    The term “Story” is obviously used loosely these days, and not necessarily in reference to a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. I work in fashion, and almost any set of images which is put together in a magazine is referred to as as a story. It’s clearly a different kind of story than what Stephen King produces.

    • Agreed. It seems like once you remove all the profanities, and thus the fun, devil-may-care feel of his kvetching, you are left with little substance and so much vagueness that you can’t argue for or against his position. Here’s a much more precise and thoughtful statement on the problems of storytelling photography that was bouncing around the internet a few months ago:

      • Barry Bald-knees

        Thanks for the link, Irene. He puts it more clearly than I did/could, but, to me confirms my thinking that it largely hangs around the semantics/definition of “storytelling”.
        One can’t argue with the point that a still image is inherently non-durative, and the key point becomes, “… the powerful role that photographs play in professional communications and their ability to complement narratives rather than express them and frame stories rather than tell them.”

      • Thanks for the mention Irene. Despite the purposely provocative title, I really wan’t trying to call BS on anyone — if someone wants to call themselves a storytelling photographer, that’s their business and maybe they know more about it than I do. But narrative is a really big, important subject and using it as a buzzword without really understanding what it is and how it works cheapens it, while at the same time disregarding what photographs do really well. I think Timothy’s analogy to poetry above is excellent.

  11. Completely agree. Been going on a long time. The cult of the amateur, everyone having the means to create etc… Are we ALL writers/musicians/poets/creators at heart? With a story to tell? Maybe, but most will never do it in a way that ANYONE will care. I believe Steven Pressfield explained it well in “The War of Art” where he says that professionals don’t over identify with our jobs, whereas amateurs over identify with their avocation. They define themselves by it. I don’t think a real storyteller/poet/writer/filmmaker etc. has to say it. Unless you want to get into the semantics of it, okay, you told a little story. Great. Now what? So now EVERYONE is a storyteller. What are you going to call the REALLY talented people out there who tell stories? Nothing, because they don’t care what you call them.

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