Tell or Show – or Both?


In 2013 the photographer Jerry L. Thompson published the small, but significant book Why Photography Matters. It’s not necessarily an easy read, but deals with some very important issues for anyone interested in understanding photography in a greater cultural and sociological context.

Photography matters, writes Jerry Thompson, because of how it works—not only as an artistic medium but also of a way of knowing. It matters because how we understand what photography is and how it works tell us something about how we understand everything. With his provocative observations, Thompson conducts a wide-ranging and lucid examination on why photography is unique among the picture-making arts. Thompson argues for photography as a medium concerned with understanding the world we live in—a medium whose business is not constructing fantasies pleasing to the eye or imagination but describing the world in the toughest and deepest way.

I read Why Photography Matters when it was published, but decided to read it again a short while ago, as it is sometimes challenging and often not an easy read—as I already mentioned. It’s very much a philosophical discussion, in which Thompson argues reflectively and thoroughly for a restored sense of the need and purpose of photography. As I read the book for a second time I came across a section that very much relates to the kind of photography I am often concerned about.

In understanding how a photograph renders a subject and how the photographer choose to render the subject, we learn that a photograph is not only telling what an object that is part of the image is, but also what it means—in the context of the world in which it is shown, according to Thompson.

He writes: «Photographers who care only about information might be called journalistic; their pictures need caption, and the captions often do the same work as the pictures, though with less visual impact the way museums-labels for “difficult” artwork does. Photographers who care only about how the picture looks might be called pictorialists; their pictures need captions no more than a symphony needs a “program” or story the music can be thought to tell. The richest, most fully realized photography is made by those who work somewhere in the middle».

This very much resonates with my thinking—and what I teach in my workshops. For a photograph to captivate an audience, it needs to be more than just «beautiful», just as it needs to be more than just «depicting» what is. A captivating photo needs to tell a story, and as such not only the obvious superficial content that makes up some subject matter, but more so on a deeper and more connective emotional level. In addition the graphics elements, the light and composition, needs to enhance and help telling the story, whether it’s a straightforward story or a more intangible expression.

One major concern for Jerry Thompson is that a photographer takes his or her time when working a subject. Only then are you able to find the link between what it is you want to tell and what it all means, as well as how most powerfully telling that story, through composition and what you choose to keep in or out of the frame.

Photographically speaking, do you regard yourself mostly as a journalist or mostly as a pictorialist—or something in between? Do you even think it’s important?

72 thoughts on “Tell or Show – or Both?

  1. Personally, I find it hard to take a photo with no story, albeit I am no journalist! But I can also appreciate the photos of others and the stories they tell without words. At a recent exhibition of the photographs of Don McCullin, his photos stood alone without the need of a story. His camera, complete with bullet hole, was also on display. It truly took a bullet for him that time.

  2. Love the picture.. It is interesting in one culture feeding baby as such is considered not appropriate in public. I’ve even seen people breast fed their baby by covering mother and baby together (think of tenting). I am not saying which is more appropriate and which is not. I am just amazed how different we are.

    For the essay, I agreed with Thompson however even for pure pictorialists I I would prefer to see short description behind it.

  3. Similar principle applies to art. Creating art which has a narrative without letting the narrative take over the entire reason for the artwork is truly a challenge. On the other hand, a “beautiful” painting without any sense of narrative at all loses some of its power.

  4. Wow, Otto. This post is the second in a row you’ve written that is helping me get my thoughts together on what I want to accomplish while I’m in San Miguel de Allende next month. And thank you for extracting some of Thompson’s writing here to bring us the meat of his book.

  5. I am not a photographer or journalist but I am intriqued by photography that speaks, are open for interpretation. For example, if I were to need to lable this photograph it would read “humanity”… Lovely post Otto.

  6. Thought provoking post. Mostly I would say I try to be in the middle. I always look for the nice photo, but I like a back story too. My husband does the same with his sculptures. Everyone likes a good story.

  7. Otto, a thought-provoking commentary…the longer that I use the photographic medium to show how I see the world, the more that is essential that my work does tell a story–a story that may not necessarily seem obvious at first. But to me it’s there. I believe that we must find our own path, that intersection where external ideas meet our inner ones. That confluence helps us take a visual stance, make a statement that can be status quo or poignant or political or cultural or …

  8. Somehow or other, in the extreme photography art make the look way to clean. But, yes photography is more important than ever because a lot people do not read and a
    Lot people are not inclined to read without a photograph. It worked but, I feel the photo reaches more people. But, the text reaches more people who are more likely to know on a deeper level, that are not pictorial.

  9. Is it important? Interesting question. It is certainly important for a journalist to know why that shutter is being pressed. Journalistic images are not necessarily pretty pictures. But I do think that good journalistic photography has to tell a story. Words may accompany or clarify the story, but the story is the whole reason. I think because I am a non-fiction writer at heart, my photography tends to reflect that desire for realism, or as close to realism as I’m able to get. Boring, but honest.

    1. For me there is nothing boring about realism or non-fiction. It’s just a different way to tell about human existence, one complements the other. Whether or not something is boring, comes down to the story itself and the way the story is told – story not meant in a literally sense, necessarily. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Linda.

  10. I would love to be somewhere in the middle! But I really need to gather the courage and the confidence in my ability and also in what I’m doing to be able to take the time with the subjects that I have so far not been able to do. This is great inspiration though. 🙂

  11. i must say i’m a pictorilist, but only pick pictures that ‘speak’ to me, to put on my blog… what they are saying when they speak, i know not, for it is in a weird language.

    1. Any language is good. Who can tell what is the better visual language anyway. Some speak to the heart, some speak to the head, some speak to the unconscious mind and some speak to gods. As long as a photo speaks, it’s good. 🙂

  12. In answer to your question, I suppose it depends on whether you make a living from Photography and whether
    you are trying to communicate a story, or create (a piece of art), or both.

    Buying a little camera when I had to retire from working became a reason for walking in the fresh air to reduce pain. Then it became a challenge to capture an image of a flower making it look like a living thing (as opposed to a sketch or painting which I used to do many years ago).

    When I started street photography in the winter when it was too inclement to walk in nature, It became something like….. communicating how we live in a western city and the multiculturalism that is Melbourne…… (perhaps more journalistic?).

    There is also a ‘walk with my camera’ as a form of diarising my day and what I see or do on that walk. My lifestyle in retirement. I know some people starting following my old blog as they were curious about Melbourne (or Australia) as a western city (or country).

    But basically, I guess you could say there are elements of creativity in Photography that form an extension of my art/design education 45 years ago.

    I was a designer, potter, a watercolour/acrylic painter, a sketch artist, a designer, a craft maker and so much more in my youth. I’ve always loved art galleries and observing how painters use light, shade & colour, but Black & White Photography has always appealed to me.

    I’m at the stage of wanting to be more creative in Photography, but deteriorating health symptoms and eyesight are really slowing me down in the last 12 months. I’m not interested in photo editing as I can’t see well enough for that kind of work. Also most days now, I’m confined indoors, so am blogging from my archives. I wish I’d taken up Photography 40 years ago when I had better eyesight and the money/health to travel (more than I did). But then I wish I’d studied Anthropology, Archeology, Interior design, History and some of the Health sciences too. 🙂

    There are so many careers I could have followed with great interest and dedication.

    1. Just as you indicate with your way into photography, there are many ways to make a living from photography. The journalistic approach isn’t necessarily the only way. 🙂 Anyway, reading your account I think it’s fantastic what photography has provided you with. Yes, I understand the desire to have picked up photography much earlier, but you seem to have lived a rich life anyway, and sometimes there just isn’t space for anything more. At least now you are able to enjoy the art of photography, which I believe you are able to build on your previous artistic experience. You are limited in some respects, but you seem to get the most out of your photographic journey, which definitely shows on your blog. Thank you for sharing your experience, Vicki.

  13. This is remarkable, mostly, when I read one of your posts, you always bring me back to ponder on why I took the photos I did. And why didn’t I think about before I took them? Or did I?
    Entertaining and a philosophical educating lecture, Otto – from you – and also all the comments bringing different views. They have said it all, so I say thank you all. 🙂
    Have a wonderful day,
    Dina x

  14. Otto, sometimes I think the story or narrative that we seek to tell with our image making is an internal one, often subconscious. Once you have a history of work, it is a little easier to see the underlying narrative. The best images capture both the inner and outer narrative because it rings true. There are some moments when I press the shutter and know that I’ve captured something important because I feel an inner resonance. The rest of the time is practice 🙂

    1. Yes, there is an inner and outer narrative in most images, and when one is able to capture both that certainly makes for a stronger and more captivating photo. Thank you for the poignant comment, Lynn.

  15. In many circles, not the least in contents, it is expected that the picture shall tell the story all by itself. Not even a title is known to the judges. This excludes for instance photos where the title and the photos supplement each other and you need both to really get the totallity.
    Projects are different – there one is freer to combine the two. Which I suspect is the best way to to it – if you have a message 🙂

    1. You raise and interesting question. Should a photo stand on its own or is it OK to let it interact with words, whether as captions or in other ways? For me it definitely depends on the context. But it also varies from photographer to another. Thank you for contributing to the discussion, Rune.

  16. Super article Otto. This is a tough one. I would certainly say I err more toward the pictorial. Through my photos I try and express the emotions that I feel when viewing a landscape, my connection to it and my love for it. I guess in that sense there’s a story to be told but not a terribly obvious one I suppose. I want to provoke those same emotions, those same feelings and in so doing I guess the viewer writes their own story at least I hope that they do. We are all moved in different ways by different things.

    1. Your stories aren’t necessarily obvious, linear or tangible, but your photos do tell a strong story. In your purpose behind the photos you create, the stories lie. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject, Adrian.

  17. I’m not exactly sure what I am. With my still life photography I try to create a story. With landscapes I try to just portray the beauty of the scene or ugliness depending upon what it is. When taking photos of people I much prefer to catch them doing something rather than posing for the camera.

    1. No, it’s not always easy to say what kind of category a photograph belongs to (and maybe it’s not even important to classify). But I think in all cases you mention, your photography tells a story, but maybe in a more subtle or less literal way than with your still life photography. Thank you for telling about the way you see, Elizabeth.

  18. This sounds like a thoroughly engaging book. I can’t say I’ve thought much about this issue – being a writer, the pictures are just secondary to what I am looking to do. But the idea of something in the middle when it comes to photography seems to make sense, just from thinking about the photographs that are most striking. Let’s say a picture from Sept. 11 – you need to have some context, as to date and the location, but with that, the picture can speak for itself and tell much more of the story than words could express.

    1. I would think much the same is relevant for writing. A good text probably need both some information and something that connects with the reading on an emotional level. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sarah.

  19. Very much enjoyed your opening photo ~ as it flowed right into your words and told a story. As you say above, a photograph is a way of knowing. While I love the written word very much, both to read as well as write, there is something about being able to capture a story within a photograph that makes it so special. While I try to push towards the journalistic side of photography (as that is what grabs me and excites me), there are times when nothing relaxes me more than trying to obtain just the beauty of what is before me (which I enjoy the pictorial philosophy of photography). I definitely enjoy the journalistic route more ~ but fun to venture to the other side as well 🙂

    1. I think both of us come from the same place when it comes to the approach to photography – although we have quite different visions and style. Thank you for sharing your opinion and experience on the subject, Randall.

  20. It seems that at different points in my life I have been all three, a journalist and a pictorialist, and sometimes something in between. Currently I would consider my photos journalistic in that they serve to document situations.

    1. I think we all develop our photography over time.I certainly started out with a more pictorialistic approach which later turned more journalistic. Thank you for sharing your experience, Michelle.

  21. I very much admire photographers who can ‘reach out’ with an image, Otto, but I’ll never be in that category. My photos are purely to make me happy. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your knowledge and understanding.

  22. A thought-provoking post Otto. I find it difficult to respond because of the variables involved – each photographer is different, each picture is different and each viewer is different. How much information to give assumes that the photographer knows well the needs and experiences of his audience. My guiding preference is to give enough information to set the context – perhaps through a title or brief note – and to leave enough ‘breathing space’ for the viewer to make his/her own interpretation.

    1. Yes, each photographer is different, and that’s why it’s often difficult to discuss certain and limiting categories as I do in this text. But I think your approach, letting the viewer have enough space for interpretation, is something all photographs could benefit from. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the subject, Louis.

  23. I don’t think I really know how to tell a story with photography, but i think I do understand the value in asking the question and discovering the difference between journalistic or pictorial photography. You ask some good and probing questions, Otto, and they stimulate me towards greater experimentation. Your photo of the nursing mother is just extraordinary!

  24. I’ve been pleased, with my last posts, to have received comments that include phrases like “your words and images.” To tell the stories only with words would have been boring, with no “hook” to catch readers’ attention. On the other hand, posting a series of photos with no commentary would have left the images unmoored, with no way to interpret them.

    The balance between image and text depends on so many things. A travel post certainly requires more photos. But a poem? I prefer a single image, chosen to complement the words. An essay on writing technique requires fewer photos than a meditation on a parent’s death.

    Something else I think about constantly is the medium I’m using. A novel isn’t filled with images, and photos in a gallery aren’t accompanied by pages of interpretive text. But on the internet, the medium itself demands something for the eye — even the arrangement of the text on the page functions as an image. Early on, I did some casual study of the field of visual rhetoric, and it’s stood me in good stead. Even something as simple as paragraph breaks makes a difference, and helps to make complex thoughts understandable — as in this great post.

    1. You make some very interesting and good points. I notice when I read novels I get distracted by images that are too literal, since I have already made pictures in my head, that of course don’t resemble those in the book. More abstract illustrations are, on the other hand, fine. And, yes, you are right about the way text is not only written but for instance how paragraph breaks are used, has an impact on how it’s understood. Thank you for a very poignant comment, Linda.

  25. I am in every way just a layman, but with my pictures I try to bring my emotions better across, which I have concerning a certain topic. Sometimes, however, I wonder, if with the pictures I do not diminish the creativitiy of the reader of my post! Thank you, Otto, for having proposed “Why photography matters”. All the best. Martina

    1. Thank you, Martina. It’s an interesting thought whether a photo will limit or diminish a readers creativity. Reading a novel is one thing, but in a post in which text and photos are closely blended, I think they complement each other. Enjoy the rest of the weekend. 🙂

  26. I definitely see myself as something in between, and that is extremely important to me. I must sound like a stuck record by saying that my approach to photography is a direct extension of my background as an illustrator first. The fundamental premise of illustration is to tell a story; wholly or partly, through visual art. Yes, it’s very important.

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