Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a Q&A session with Mary Ellen Mark, winner of this year's Sony World Photography Awards' Outstanding Contribution to Photography. She was asked many pertinent questions and gave a great many eloquent answers, but it was the statement that 'Photography has to say something,' that struck the most resonant chord with me. It chimed right back to one of the very first things that I was taught when I started to wield a camera. I learned the basics of photography from my friend Daniel's mother, exploring the hedgerows around my school and attempting action shots of my classmates playing sport. Linda was patient, enthusiastic, and inventive. I was desperate to do well under her tutelage and one of the most piercing criticisms that she could give of my photos was 'But what's it a photo of, Daniela?' You see, every photo is meant to tell a story, and if your audience cannot discern what you're trying to say, then you've failed in your task as a photographer.
'What's the story?' is a mantra that has adhered with me for some 27 years, and it's the starting point for any critique that I give a photo, whether it's mine or it's someone else's. Even a photo of a gorgeous flower in bloom has a story to tell, and this story is the origin of all picture-taking. Your audience needs to be able to connect with your image and they will do that through its story.
When you're faced with a compelling scene, it's pointless to wave your camera about wildly, snapping at everything you think is relevant and hoping that something will come out of it. All that you'll succeed in producing will be photos as scatter-brained as your approach. Think about: there is a story there that caught your eye and you need to convey it. So think about what that story is and concentrate on narrating it through an image.
When you shoot a landscape, picking out the isolated stone house nestling in the valley will convey a sense of loneliness, or maybe peace. Catching the glint in your nephew's eye as he sneaks a biscuit out of the tin says everything about his cheeky furtiveness. It's all there for the telling.
Building further on this notion, by identifying the stories in your photos and concentrating on how you aim to tell them, your photography will improve. You will have a clearer idea of how to compose your frame and it will give you a starting point for your technical settings. You might not get it right first, or even second or third time, but you will be working in the direction of whatever it is that you're trying to say rather than fumbling in the dark. In every possible way you'll be strenghtening your photography: creatively, technically, and practically.
Before you depress the shutter button, ask yourself, what's the story and how am I going to tell it? Remember: every photograph has to say something.