I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of storytellers and how they’ve evolved over time. I’ve been a heavy reader since first grade when I taught myself the basics. I never really learned how to sound out words, I’d point to words and get someone to say them and I learned to recognize the shape and match it to the word. Since that day I rabidly read anything I could get my hands on, sneaking authors like Dean Koontz, Steven King, and V.C. Andrews as early as fourth grade. Like most people who are heavy readers I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I also know myself well enough to say I probably wouldn’t be successful at it as a career. I have way too many hobbies to even keep a regular pace with a blog, so it’s more likely I’d fiddle with it when I’m retired.
But the focus today is more modern day storytellers, myself included. It all started with oral history and the spoken word, evolved with alphabets into poetry and novels, danced into music, shifted onto the airwaves and digital with radio, movies, and television, and now FINALLY photography is coming into its own, all because of the invention of the camera phone.
If you’ve known me for any length of time, follow me on social media, or spend more than 30 minutes with me in person you’re going to realize I love taking pictures. I do it as a hobby / side business, I do it for fun and relaxation, and more often I do it just to document my life for myself. Photography as a storytelling medium has been around for a long time, but it wasn’t accessible to the masses. It was expensive, it was hard, it took a LOT of time, and the failure rate was high. People who stuck with it got fame and/or fortune (like Ansel Adams) but typically the rarity of good photography meant that the storytelling aspect was largely ignored in favor of a heavy art focus and attempting to evoke emotion.
So what made this shift happen? The rise of social media had a strong influence to be sure, but I think the most influential of them all were Instagram and Snapchat. Instagram opened up photography as a medium like Youtube did for video and Facebook/Twitter did for text. It gave people a way combine images, text, and then socialize it among their friends and followers to tell a story. Snapchat built on that by actually calling their gallery concepts stories, encouraging people to put a purpose and theme to them.
So what? What does it matter? To best answer that question I’m going to back up a little and tell a story of my own.
In February of this year my mom died. She’d been sick for a very long time- nearly a decade- so it wasn’t a surprise to us. She’d fought hard and long but in the end, the last 6 months of her life were spent in a hospital bed. She didn’t want a lot of visitors and I knew why… the woman in that bed wasn’t my mom. She wasn’t the mother I grew up with, the woman I talked to several times a week on the phone, or the grandmother who doted on her granddaughters. It wasn’t authentic “her”, it didn’t fit with her narrative and she didn’t want to be remembered like that. It was easy to realize that (it’s a common theme in the terminally ill) but what I didn’t realize is that my story of my mom wasn’t complete either. As we sat there in the waiting room, day after day and well into the night drinking bad coffee, my dad opened up and told me stories of their life in high school, being college sweethearts, what it was like as newlyweds and so much more. He regaled me with stories about the sacrifices, the love, the laughs, and even the tears of the woman he’d know for over 40 years and I couldn’t help but feel how much I had missed and how I wished I had known her better.
The months marched on and eventually mom passed, and as we prepared for the funeral and viewing I got the job of picking out photos to use. For two solid days I went through box after box of random photos, wedding albums, storage units and more. I sorted through boxes, bags, dust, and pictures dating back as far as the 50s, all carefully preserved. What I didn’t count on was for her story to evolve for me even more; she was the blushing bride who got married in her sister’s wedding dress. She was the giddy 20 something who made a card for her beau out of poster board with googly eyes while my dad was away on a trip. She had a near endless love of kids- from the late 70s forward you almost couldn’t find a picture of her without hers or someone else’s kids in her lap. Despite loving modern technology she valued her past; from her hope chest filled with afghans crocheted by her mom and her mother-in-law to the first jacket she ever bought my dad, even down to the first set of pearls he ever bought her (she was allergic to most silver/gold and would break out in a rash). She was stubborn, she was prideful, and she loved harder than anyone else I know. During her final months she even drove cross-country with my dad to see me get married, basically running on coffee, Virginia Slims Light 120s (her preferred brand of cigarettes), and willpower alone. It was the last time I saw her truly happy and photography is what allowed me to see it. Mom, I won’t forget your story and I’ll tell it to anyone who asks. You were dynamic, you were beautiful, and I miss you almost every day.
So that’s why I think storytelling matters. No one’s story is just one chapter, no one’s story stands alone, and its up to each of us to tell it in our own way. Photography is just how I tell mine.