When I was home in Maine for Thanksgiving, my mother, sister, father, and I lounged on the couch drinking pale ale as the woodstove in the living room kept us warm. My mother, who taught me how to be a good storyteller, had dusted off a three-inch binder of photos from my childhood—pictures of my sister and I splashing in my grandparents’ jacuzzi in Hawaii, photos of us modeling Halloween costumes on the front porch before a night of sweet plunder. I wore a green dinosaur costume my best friend’s mom had sewn. I stood proudly, jaws bared for the camera.
Flash forward a few decades.
Today, when I open Facebook, rarely do I scroll through my News Feed without seeing at least a few photos of friends’ kids—laughing, crying, growing up. Their childhood is being uploaded in stunning quality and quantity. My childhood is printed in a few three-inch binders that collect dust in Mom’s art studio.
Photos have always been able to transport people and make them feel instant emotion, seconds or decades after the photo was taken. As I looked at a picture of myself at five years old standing underneath the birch tree in my front yard, my backpack straps tightly fastened, a nervous smile, I remembered the mixed emotions of what it was like to go to school for the first day.
By now, we’re all aware of how technological innovations have transformed the way generations document their lives, and photography is perhaps the most affected of any storytelling medium. As brands attempt to become better storytellers to engage advertising-adverse consumers, they will increasingly turn to original photography to help them do so.
In part one of this series, I learned content creation tips from Grammy-winning and up-and-coming songwriters. For this installment, I spoke with three photographers about how to tell a story through a photo, and what authenticity in photography means.
Authenticity. It’s one of those words like interesting, or moving, or similarly unimaginative adjectives you’d find in a poorly written book review. What does it mean, and why is everyone always talking about it if they don’t have a clue?
Professional photographer and Director of Content for photography website 500px, Nuno Silva, recognizes that it can hold many definitions, but in digital content, authenticity is about creating a realistic snapshot—”real people in real life.”
In this photograph, Silva captures an individual who dresses and lives in drag most of their life. “This was one of the last shots from the series of the transformation (documenting the daily process from a man to woman), and it ends in an almost anonymous scene with smoke covering the face about to reveal the new persona behind the cloud,” he says.
Daniel Lewis, a young, urban photographer based in New York City, echoes Silva’s thoughts on authenticity. “People will always relate to realness, and similar to people skills, it’s un-fakeable,” he says.
In this photo, Lewis documents the aftermath of a shooting in the city between kids and an undercover detective.
If you’re like me, you look at these two photos and are instantly curious about the lives of the subjects. We get just enough information about them to be able to construct our own narratives. They’re not demanding the viewer understand the entirety of the “true story.” Instead, they provoke us to wonder and inspire a curiosity to know more.
For content marketers and storytellers, this is hugely powerful.
Photo essays have been a journalistic mainstay since the inception of the medium, dating back to early examples in the late 1800s by Alfred Stieglitz, Jacob Riis, and Arnold Genthe among others. But with today’s advanced means of digital display, they are some of the most gripping forms of storytelling—showing the effects of climate change on Greenland’s hunting communities, testimonies of Boko Haram survivors, and a Syrian refugee family’s journey through Europe.
Clearly, these are high-stakes examples of humanitarian crises; but who’s to say that brands can’t apply the same sincere form of photographic journalism to causes that matter? Which do you think will have more staying power, an energy drink ad that boasts about its flavor, or a series of stories promoting South African social entrepreneurs changing their corners of the world?
Though it may be defined in many ways, people can sense authenticity—what genuineness means to them—and if it’s missing, they’ll make a snap judgment of the brand. Using photo “models” that are regular employees doing their jobs and living their lives as they normally would is becoming increasingly necessary to connect with online users. As Silva says, “As we consume more and more marketing content every day, subsequent generations are becoming more jaded, more disillusioned, and less interested in fake or unrealistic aspirations.”
Photographer Matthew Liteplo explains a recent trip he made to photograph Funny Duck Farms in Ontario, Canada last summer, a small family operation that creates organic products without soy. Here, he captures the farmers in an unprocessed, natural way.
“While sometimes forgotten, farmers are amongst the hardest working people out there, and when hay harvest season arrives, that gets elevated to an entirely new level. For weeks, the weather is watched carefully, and when a good stretch of sun comes out, it’s time to harvest hay.
“Hay fuels livestock and is essential to the operation—the entire operation comes down to hay day. It also happens that the grass needs time to dry after being cut, so hot weather is necessary. After documenting the day, from racking, stacking, baling, etc., I was able to capture a few portraits of the farmers. I remember Samantha casually mentioning, “But I look horrible and sweaty,” and I thought to myself, ‘that’s exactly what I’m here to capture: the authenticity.'”
Real people, real life. This is exactly the visual marketing strategy that brands must practice to engage consumers. Take them ” behind the scenes,” and reveal to them the person or product as honestly and openly as possible. And of course, except nothing less than using high-quality visuals—but don’t forget that this is secondary to capturing emotion.
“Expression has the biggest impact on authenticity, not pixels,” says Liteplo. “Genuine expressions can be seen, whether we know it or not. Fake expressions are easily picked out. Browse through any photo on any stock site, and it’s pretty easy to pick out who’s connected with the photographer and who hasn’t.”
I challenge brands and their storytellers to embrace the authenticity that offers a portrait of real life—ugly or beautiful, desperate or hopeful, catastrophic or calm. Readers and viewers will thank you by returning to your stories and sharing them with their friends and family.
When I think of the term “stock photography,” I picture obviously staged interactions between people of varying ethnicities and genders in fluorescently lit environments. You know what I’m talking about.
I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read online—this year, the year 2015—that have used photos like the one above. With the multitude of high-quality, inexpensive, original stock photography websites out there (Death to the Stock Photo, for example), brands and their storytellers have zero excuses for choosing fake-looking photos.
The question is, though, why are these photos ineffective at helping to tell a story?
Silva says, “Having an overly produced commercial image in social isn’t necessarily ‘inauthentic’ but actually just doesn’t fit in and is a jarring experience on a user’s feed.”
The key word that Silva uses here is “jarring.” These photos disrupt a viewer’s experience, whether on a social feed that’s otherwise filled with user-generated, candid content, or within a brand story that—apart from the commercial photos—is original and compelling.
Brands and their content creators—writers, photographers, videographers alike—must understand the aesthetic of the hub in which they’ll be publishing content. Otherwise, misalignment abounds. If you’re a content creator, ask your editor to send you visual guidelines that describe the look and feel of the media site. If you’re the one running the site, make sure you equip all of your content creators with straightforward, descriptive guidelines of the aesthetic, along with examples of the photos you use.
Too many content creators approach content like depositing checks into an ATM—a quick cash-in to up their balance. The truth is, photography, or any other storytelling medium, is a craft that takes time to develop and has a never-ending expiration date for improvement.
The good news is, stunning stories are told every day across the media world, many of which you can instantly access for free. If you want to learn how to be a good storyteller, you have to learn how to be a good student. And a good student is always inquisitive, meeting people from all professional backgrounds and walks of life, and valuing a good question over almost anything else.
What else can we learn?
Keep up with this series by subscribing to the Content Standard Newsletter. Next up, what brand storytellers can learn from videographers.