The Photographer and the Storyteller


by Michael Freeman

michael-freeman-bannerCan you tell, really tell, a story only with images?

I’m both a photographer and a writer, which is unusual, and has to do with the way the brain is wired (or in my case, cross-wired). It gives me a special perspective on books, which have always been my favourite medium, and after 142, of which I authored 88, I’m fascinated by what we can do with them, how we can use them in reportage, which is my field. I produce, on average, three a year, and they vary from being mainly words (only a few of those), to being photographs with single-line captions.

I’m first a photographer, and so the majority of my books are what we call picture-led. To be successful, a picture-led book has to work hard and in a particular way, because the dynamics of a sequence of images in a fixed order is quite different from the much more understandable flow of words in chapters.

For a start, it’s considered perverse to read a book in anything other than the order in which it was written, from the first page to the last (or at least as far as the reader is prepared to go, until his or her interest runs out). But it’s perfectly normal for people to flick through a book of photographs in any way they please. I wish they wouldn’t, because I’d like them to experience the images in the way I sequenced them, but I have no control over that. Nevertheless, the designer and I work hard to encourage it, because rhythm and pacing is all in the construction of a picture-led book.

This is why, of all the ways of sequencing, the one that fascinates me the most is narrative. In other words, a story to tell.

There’s a current fashion in photography to say ‘I’m a storyteller and each of my pictures tells a story’. It’s a form of boasting (photographers do a lot of this), shoring up the confidence dam. And also a tribute to the respect with which storytelling is held. Can you imagine anyone saying that storytelling is boring? But is it true? Is it even possible?

Consider what’s involved in a real story, which most of us experience in the form of a novel or a movie. It takes time, because there’s a lot to say in any story. There are characters to introduce, a plot to develop, high points and low points, surprises (always surprises). An average novel takes what, a couple of days to read if you devoted your time to it? An average movie between an hour and a half and two hours. An average season of a television series about eight hours. What chance does a single photograph stand? Frankly, none whatsoever. It’s a conceit.

Of course, you can set up all kinds of intrigue in a single photograph, and suggest that there’s a story to be told, but actually telling it? Hardly. Photographs tell stories in a sequence. You need several to many, and the sequence needs to flow and keep the audience turning the pages.

It’s quite a challenge, and that’s what intrigues me. What intrigues me even more is a particular kind of narrative. The Journey is one of only a few core narratives in art. In its classic form, it’s an epic, it reveals new knowledge and experiences along the way, and is ultimately inspiring. All of that is a tall order for any artform. In my 2011 book Tea Horse Road, it’s what I set out to do over a two-year period, taking a journey little known in the West that was undertaken across 13 centuries by horse caravans from China’s far southwest to Tibet. It was the longest trade route in the ancient world, and traversed spectacular terrain and a string of varied cultures.

This is what I’ll be showing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, both the journey itself and the way we turned it into a lucid narrative. And, as with all stories, there’s the other story — the one behind the making. This, behind the scenes, is the one that storytellers themselves enjoy.

Click here to view Michael Freeman’s sessions at the Festival.