2. Building a story
It's not about the picture itself, but the story behind it.
So you’ve set out to photograph a specific location. Whether it’s for commissioned work, a fine art project, a photo book, or just your private gallery, you’ll most likely see this endeavor as your own personal take on the place - a singular perspective and a unique point of view over that piece of nature. At least that’s what you leave home planning for. Unfortunately, more often than not, we come back having taken just another picture of a mountain. It took me years to learn that myself, and others, felt most connected and enjoyed my photos most when there was a compelling story behind them. Looking back at some of my favorite photos, I realize that their power lies in the ability to bring me back to those places and those experiences. That narrative that starts unwinding as I look at a picture or series of pictures is what makes it memorable, and is what I strive to pass on when I share an image I take. The best stories you can share though your photography are the ones that are closest to you personally. No matter where your work takes you (you don’t always choose what to shoot!), you’ll always gravitate towards photographing the things you love. That’s why you should try to photograph as much as possible subjects you’re naturally passionate about. If you love cooking, shoot food. If you’re a car aficionado, go out and shoot those until you master it. Anthropology is your thing? Travel to document traditional cultures around the world. You have a passion for nature and the great outdoors? Get out as much as possible and shoot it endlessly. Develop a deep connection with your subjects and make photographing them part of your lifestyle. The stories will come naturally, and your work will shine because it will be genuine, personal and filled with emotion. Trust me, people will be able to tell.
A few years ago, I was going through a period with a lot of travelling and many shoots for different projects, and it all became a bit overwhelming. Big commercial shoots, with big crews, crazy beautiful locations and adventures, full of tourists. I reached a point when all I wanted was to just go somewhere I could be alone. Then one day, as I was looking almost aimlessly at a map (that’s something I strangely do often), I noticed Alaska and said to myself ‘hey, that’s pretty close to me and it has mountains, let’s go check it out’. Before I knew it, I was in Alaska all on my own, sleeping out of the back of my rental car, getting my butt kicked in snow up to my waist, with 20 hours of darkness each day in the middle of December. Both literally and figuratively, I was immersed in the landscape, it felt like the wildest place I had ever been to, and I loved everything about it. I knew I had to come back, and I knew I wanted to somehow get others to feel what I felt when I discovered Alaska.
My connection to Alaska is what I had in mind when I set out to photograph Alaska this time around. Finding your connection - your story - should be the most important part in planning a photo trip, even though it doesn’t have that much to do with the photographing itself. Before you even leave for your trip, think about the narrative that you want to build. How will it unfold across your images? When you’re on the trip, shoot some behind-the-scenes footage if that’s a resource available to you. Take notes out in the field, keep a travel diary. Stay curious and be open to unexpected situations, making those challenges or triumphs a part of your story. Think beyond the end result, the images. Maybe they will turn into an exhibition, or a book, or will be featured in a publication. All that extra information you collect during the trip will help you create an engaging story no matter what medium you’ll use to share your images. People resonate with authentic experiences, and are always interested to know more about the the journeys that lead to amazing images. Patience is key One last important ingredient in building a great story is patience. Powerful landscape photography will just take time. You’ll have to spend hours on end, days, sometimes even years until you get to know your subject and how to perfectly capture it in a striking way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left a place not getting the shot I had planned for. But that’s also part of the charm of landscape photography. A part of me loves these experiences so much because even after all the years of going back, there’s always more for me to learn and more to capture. The mountains and landscapes will long outlive me, but at the same time they’re always changing in a way.
Section in Review: Collecting elements of the narrative
✓ Shoot behind the scenes footage and images whenever possible
✓ Take notes or keep a diary to be able to remember important details later on
✓ Collect items along the way that help tell the story you want to tell
✓ Be patient and stick to the narrative rather than going for the quick snapshot