It’s Me, Honey: What’s Really at Stake in Photography?

A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.
—Ansel Adams

Story in photography follows the same rules that story does in any other medium. Many years ago, as a writing student,  I took a few fiction workshops with novelist Jack Hodgins. While he provided a wonderful wealth of information about narrative structure, one phrase has always stuck with me.

“What’s at stake?” he would invariably ask about the stories we were workshopping.

In any story one must ask the question: if there is nothing at stake for anyone — if there is no gain or loss or conflict or change — is there really a story or only a series of events?

In photography it is easy to take pictures where nothing is at stake and these pedestrian (e.g. boring) photos don’t succeed any more than fictional stories where nothing is at stake. They reveal nothing more than the fact that a photograph was taken.

I have thousands of these storyless images. They  are pretty much the digital detritus of experiment and/or laziness. But with a little work, a little focus on story, one can come up with photographs truly worthy of sharing.

For instance: Here’s a photo of mine that people seem to like. It’s a humorous moment that tells a story of personal recognition, a light-hearted reminder that we can see ourselves in the oddest of places.

The man in the photo obviously identifies with this statue in Florence’s Boboli Gardens. The statue itself, known as The Bacchino, is sculptor Valerio Cioli’s satiric portrait of the Medici court dwarf Pietro Barbino (“Morgante”) as Bacchus, circa 1560.

I think people like this shot because they can see a story, or many stories in this photo. I shot this after patiently waiting for the man to approach the statue. I could see a few seconds before that he was getting ready to pose for his friend, and I laughed while taking the photo. I caught him unknowingly in his moment.

So what’s at stake for him, for me, for you? For him, I sense, it is a moment of self acceptance and laughter. He’s playing and revealing the ability to poke fun at himself.

For me, what’s at stake is my willingness to invade his privacy, to frame the photo that emphasizes the similarity between the statue and the man.

In this act of making fun are we laughing with him, or at him? This reminds me of a quote by Mary Ellen Mark, a respected photo journalist, who said, “I just think it’s important to be direct and honest with people about why you’re photographing them and what you’re doing. After all, you are taking some of their soul.”

Have I made a story at his expense? Is what’s at stake some dignity, some perceptions, some biases, some cultural influences? Would this photo be any more amusing if he were a thin man in front of a thin statue?

I guess that’s what might be at stake for you in this story is…your reaction.

Photo Credits

Boboli by Chris Holt All Rights Reserved

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  1. avatar says

    Your article reminds me that any artwork is a self portrait. The artist cannot help but reveal a part of himself in it. Whether it is interpreted correctly is another ‘story’. I would agree with Michael that the story oftentimes just happens and it is the artist’s courage in the telling that I applaud.


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