We’ve all heard that a picture is worth 1,000 words, but what does this mean for communicators, especially as the stories we tell are becoming more visual and ephemeral in our new media world? With this question in mind, our WE Portland office took advantage of our Employee Experience Field Trip benefit and set out to experience Matthew Everett Ellis’ nature photography exhibit in Northwest Portland, which included a talk from Matthew on his approach to storytelling via photography and what he’s learned along the way.
Matthew approaches his photography unconventionally by taking no more than three pictures of a subject and forgoing any editing or retouching. As storytellers, this approach can be alarming as it requires the content to be compelling on its own, without window dressing or over-orchestrating a story to convey the message. However, the result of this highly selective and restrained approach is simple and evocative—exactly the emotional storytelling we aim to deliver through other communications mediums.
Here are the insights we captured:
Lean into juxtaposition. Matthew often takes a series of photos from different perspectives of the same subject. One series from the Hawaii coast demonstrates the dramatic differences that can be captured by simply changing your elevation or angle. This approach can be fruitful for communicators across photography, digital, or written storytelling. It means taking the time to pause and look beyond what's in front of you to find other interesting angles and points of view that might not be obvious from the beginning. The strongest stories should have multiple layers and once you peel them back you might find something even more interesting beneath the surface.
The complexity of simple. Matthew focuses on nature photography, which he notes can often appear to be beautifully simple—such as the Sun Tunnels, an installation by Nancy Holt (1938-2014) that Matthew photographed in 2016 in rural Utah. The tunnels appear to be straightforward concrete tubes with a few holes carved in them haphazardly, and placed in the Great Basin Desert in northwestern Utah. However, the truth is the four massive concrete tunnels (18 feet long and nine feet in diameter) are arranged in an “X” configuration and placed so that each tunnel reacts to the sun differently, aligned with the sunrise and sunset of the summer or winter solstice. Ms. Holt worked with engineers, an astronomer, an astrophysicist, ditch diggers, and concrete pipe company workers, among many others, to achieve the design, fabrication, and placement of the four cylinders to perfectly align them to the path of the sun and planets.
If the shot isn’t there, move on. Matthew’s efficient and fail-fast approach to photography—he takes a few photos, which either do or do not capture his subject, and eschews editing in an effort to make them work— is also a key takeaway for all storytellers. If the subject matter is interesting, it should be immediately apparent. We should always remember that at the heart of a great story is exactly that: a great story. We shouldn't have to force a fit or over-architect our subjects to make them interesting. Giving ourselves permission to constantly explore is the only way to find interesting, creative content. But it's important to establish some boundaries and recognize that it's ok to move on if the spark is not there.