Visual Story Extravaganza -- But Can a Visual Image Tell a Story?

Periodically, I like to publish a roundup of items about story in visual form. In the past, I would have referred to this categorization as “visual storytelling.” I am opening my mind, however, and being more respectful to those who believe a visual image cannot fit into the definition of storytelling.

ChrissiePhoto.jpg We might question whether a visual image (or set of images) can be synonymous with story. Certainly an image can suggest or prompt a story, but it will likely be a slightly different story for every beholder. One of the visual artists I reviewed for this roundup was teenage photographer Chrissie White, whom I read about in Oprah’s magazine. A section of White’s Web site is entitled A Million Different Stories. “I think of the pictures as movie cels,” White says ” — a moment in a narrative.” Perhaps that’s what a lot of what is touted to be visual storytelling is — not so much a story as a moment in a story and yes, I realize here we’re also getting into the difference between story and narrative. (See one of her photos, above right).

It is therefore with a slightly more analytical eye that I present my latest roundup on visual story.

  • Visual Storytelling: The Digital Video Documentary is a downloadable ebook by Nancy Kalow, which according to its publisher, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, “anyone who wants to make a watchable short documentary using a consumer camcorder, digital SLR camera, or cell phone. Nancy Kalow … has written a step-by-step and comprehensive guide to making a low-budget video with a one-person crew. The Visual Storytelling approach guides you through shooting and interviewing, editing, and the ethics of telling someone else’s story.” Again, some would debate whether this form is storytelling, but you can’t beat a free ebook if you are interested in the intersection of cameras and stories. Also in the how-to category is Photographic Storytelling Checklist.
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  • In the visual-culture blog, I Like to Watch, David Schonauer writes about William Albert Allard, “one of photography’s great storytellers.” The post is part of a series focused on “turning points in the careers of major photographers.” Even if we were to argue that Allard’s photos don’t tell stories (and the one at left certainly is evocative to me), the blog post tells the story of how he became a photographer.
  • Back in January, photographer Douglas Levy posed an interesting proposition: I shoot your wedding. You pay $0. A storytelling contest., noting:
    Modern weddings are productions. There are dresses, shoes, flowers, limos, gifts…expenses…stuff. Me? I’ve always been a sucker for a great story. I think that this dates back to my freshman year in college or so when I’d spend hours on Pulitzer.org reading all the winning entries for feature writing … So, with that in mind, I want to hear your stories. Tell me how you met, tell my why your wedding is going to be a great story, tell me how you fell in love, tell me your great aunt is going to do a Lady Gaga dance at your wedding…just tell me your story.
    Levy announced the winner in March, a couple whose first date involved plunges over waterfalls and led to a proposal. The wedding is in September.
  • Trendhunter often runs work by visual artists that the site considers to be “visual storytelling.” For example, Bj Richeille’s Episode Finale Dance photo series, headlined on Trendhunter as Bored Performer Photography “seems to shape the story of a bored performer and her equally bored daughter. That, or a failing performer who has lost all hope for a better life and future, and is coming to terms with the unattainability of success and fame.” It’s the kind of visual imagery for which it’s fun to imagine the story it could be depicting. Same goes for the work of Brad Lou Tennant, also featured on Trendhunter under the rubric “Intimate Story-Telling Photography”.
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  • Artists frequently create visual images for stories that have already been told, as in the case of the 16 prints in Norman Rockwell’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn series. An exhibition, American Storytellers: Norman Rockwell & Mark Twain at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT, through Sept. 6. Rockwell has, of course, been cited as a storyteller for much of his non-Twain work (see above right), some of which appears in the exhibition. For a nice piece on Rockwell as story “teller,” see Norman Rockwell’s Storytelling Lessons on Smithsonain.com.
  • Perhaps a latter-day Rockwell is Jonathon Bartlett, whose work can be seen in Jonathon Bartlett’s Storytelling Illustrations.
  • I’m a huge fan of dance, which I do believe often depicts story though does not tell stories. Most of the dance numbers on my favorite TV show, “So You Think You Can Dance,” are built around stories, as I wrote about here. But a clip titled The Art of Storytelling from a talent agency representing dancers does not strike me as storied at all.
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  • Another twist on the idea of story and visual images is the Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project. Tina Olsen, the museum’s director of education and public programs, describes the project in an interview:
    We ended up with a gallery in the museum … It’s in a good location, but it’s also kind of a pass-through space to other galleries. It has a recording booth that you sign up in advance to use, and you go in and tell a story about an object that is meaningful to you. The other parts of the gallery are for experiencing the stories, and for connecting with the Museum collection. We have cases with museum objects that people told stories about, with large images of those storytellers adjacent to the object, and in the middle of the gallery is a long rectangular table with touchscreens where people can access all the stories that have been recorded.
    In a similar but somewhat less storied project, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) asked visitors to share their MoMA stories. “I went to MoMA and …” is the result.
  • Stories about objects, in fact, have become increasingly popular. Another example is a clothing line, The IOU Project. As described on Springwise: “The IOU Project plans to track each garment for every step of the way, making the resulting product life story accessible to the consumer via QR code. Consumers who buy the items will also be invited to upload pictures of themselves wearing them.”
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  • It has just been in the last year that I’ve been introduced to a visual technique that live-chronicles meetings and conference presentations with graphic images. AlphaChimp is one practitioner of the technique, known as graphic facilitation; the company’s work is shown at right.
  • The storied quality of data visualization and infographics is debatable, and a good illustration is Maria Popova’s praise of a TED Talk by Aaron Koblin. With the exception of the very first example in Koblin’s presentation, I just didn’t see the stories. Do you?

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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The following are sections of A Storied Career where I maintain regularly updated running lists of various items of interest to followers of storytelling:

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Links below are to Q&A interviews with story practitioners.


The pages below relate to learning from my PhD program focusing on a specific storytelling seminar in 2005. These are not updated but still may be of interest:

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