For many photographers, their aim is not just to produce a visually arresting image or piece of art, but to tell a story. A picture can be a powerful communicator, loaded with information. But are there limits to how much a photograph alone can communicate? As a photographer, you may have overlooked the advantages of adding another dimension and skill to your repertoire: writing.
The art of writing can further liberate an artist’s distinct perspective, add context and background to an image or a set of images. If you intend on selling a photo story to an editor, words will often play a vital role. Some have adjusted to the dynamics of photojournalism by collaborating with writers, while others are discovering how writing can enhance their own creative process, from observation to expression.
To garner a better sense of how words influence and add value to images (and vice versa), we asked Graeme Green, a professional photographer, journalist, travel writer and editor from the UK. According to photographic master Art Wolfe, Graeme’s “skills pack a one-two punch for writing and photography.” His work has appeared in international publications including The Sunday Times, BBC, National Geographic Traveller, The Guardian, Wanderlust, South China Morning Post and many more.
Here, Graeme shares his thoughts on the relationship between words and pictures...
Under ‘profession’, how do you describe yourself?
If I have to boil it down to one word, I say ‘journalist’, as that encompasses both photography and writing. I spend most of my working life telling stories, using both words and pictures.
I do usually list photographer, journalist, travel writer and editor though, because that covers what I do. Journalism, photography and travel writing is how I spend most of my time, and occasionally I step into editor roles when I’m needed by a publication and if it’s a fit. I could add ‘consultant’, as I work with a few companies on their strategies and growing the company, or ‘speaker’, as I also lead photography tours as an expert guide.
That kind of multi-role working life has become the norm now. Most photographers or writers now make a living from several jobs, running alongside each other. Even photographers who’ve been working in the business a lot longer than me, like Timothy Allen or Steve McCurry, also arrange or lead photography trips, teach classes, do speaking engagements, or work on partnerships and sponsorship deals with companies. That’s a sign of how the business has changed over the years.
Which came first: photography or writing?
I read a lot when I was young and always enjoyed writing. I got into photography as a teenager, wandering around cities and the countryside, shooting mainly black and white pictures on film.
Later, when I started working as a journalist, I was primarily writing, but the job took me to interesting places around the world. I started taking photos purely because I enjoyed it, but it gradually became an important part of my job. The photos were just as important a part of telling a story or communicating something about a place.
Were both crafts something that came naturally to you?
I think I have a natural connection with both. I had an inquisitive mind and enjoyed trying to put the world into words from an early age. With photography, even before I really understood more of the technical elements, I had a good eye and an idea of what I liked visually. I knew the pictures I wanted to achieve.
But I think nothing really outstanding comes easily or just naturally. I’ve worked hard on both disciplines. I’ve learned everything that I can. I’ve read. I’ve practiced. I’ve talked to other writers and photographers. I’ve studied other people’s work. I’ve experimented. I’ve looked at areas I want to work on. More than anything, I’m constantly pushing myself to improve.
Did you have to adapt or adopt different ways of seeing and capturing a story?
Not really. Both writing and photography are about looking around you and really observing, studying, and thinking about what’s important? What is the story? Who are the principal characters? What are the vital messages? What are the smaller, less obvious details that also bring a story to life?
There’s often a relationship between photos and words. They both communicate a story or bring parts of a story together.
Visual art or fine art photography is different, and sometimes I go out to just take photos for pleasure, or experiment, or to take photos that aren’t part of an assignment, but just to satisfy myself or to create different images. But with photojournalism, words and photos combine and work together to tell a story.
What skills do photographers bring to writing and vice versa?
Again, I think there’s an overlap. As a photographer or a writer, you’re always looking at the unique elements of the story: the big picture, the central theme or narrative, the people, the details. I think it’s true that photos have a more immediate power. They can draw people in and provide an immediate hit of emotion, shock, beauty or intrigue. Words can provide a different level of detail, not only background, context and explanation, but detailed ideas or conversations between people or different points of view.
Writers and photographers need to keep their ears, eyes, and minds open.
Photographers are not just looking for things that are visually interesting. You need to engage with a subject, just as a writer does. You must discuss and understand ideas, learn about people, dig out stories, find interesting details. All that will help for far more interesting, layered and thoughtful photos than if you just photograph anything that looks visually interesting.
A lot of photographing and writing is about looking at what’s around you, understanding a subject and finding your take on it.
Where would you advise a photographer interested in learning to write for media start?
By reading. But reading closely and analytically. Look at copies of the kinds of publications you want to write for, and look at the kinds of stories they publish, what angles they go for on a subject. Look at the headline, the sub-header. Then look closely at the articles. What kind of writing does this publication run? Is it highly descriptive and poetic? Is it functional and informative? Is it witty and full of character? How do they start their articles? What’s in an opening paragraph? What kind of information do they include further down?
Understanding what specific publications want, and what they run is an essential start. If you’re pitching an idea to an editor, they want to know you understand their publication.
What are some exercises or resources you would recommend?
There are many resources online now, with websites full of articles that you can read and analyse the writing. There are also many ‘How To Write’ articles online or ‘Tips For Writers’, though many of them can be vague, rather than helpful. It’s good to find something that’s detailed and from a publication you can trust.
In terms of exercises, the best thing to do is start writing. Have a go at writing an article, whether a travel feature on a recent adventure or a story on a subject you care about. Craft the piece of work in such a way that it could appear in a publication you’d like to work for. Get someone you respect to read it and give you honest feedback. Very few people become fully formed writers on their first attempt. It’s a process that can take years.
It also helps to get authentic experience. Smaller websites and publications accept articles from new writers, sometimes unpaid. It is very helpful to get as much experience as possible writing for editors. Many people might think they’re a writer, but until you’ve worked with an editor and really tested your skills in a professional setting, you don’t really know.
What are some other applications for visual-storytellers with skills in both disciplines?
There are many ways to go these days. Newspapers and magazines are still the Holy Grail for most people, and a lot of writers and photographers will have respected publications that they’d really like to work with.
There are many websites and online magazines to work for. There are also opportunities to work with companies on content, whether car companies or climbing gear companies. It’s about finding something that satisfies you.
What indicators can help a photographer decide whether to pursue a collaboration rather than write for themselves?
The Number One indicator would be if they don’t actually like writing. It isn’t for everyone. It involves hours or days of taking notes, then more hours sat at a laptop, writing, editing. I enjoy the writing process, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. It can be a long process, and if you don’t actually enjoy the written word, why bother? A lot of photographers are just interested in visuals, and if writing isn’t something they enjoy, it may be a waste of time. It might also be an indicator writing isn’t for you if you keep getting terrible feedback, though, of course, persistence and practice often pay off.
What should they look for in a writer if they choose this route?
I rarely do collaborations. For my work, I usually cover both photography and writing.
If a photographer was seeking a collaboration, the key thing I’d suggest is making sure you agree with the writer. If it’s a set of photos on the effects of climate change, I wouldn’t, for example, want the article written by someone who thought global warming was a conspiracy theory. That major point aside, I’d look closely at their writing. Does it have ‘life’? Is it the writing you like to read? Is it powerful?
One important point to make is that editors at many publications are the ones who typically decide the pairing of writing and photography. They might have an idea for an article they want to run, or they might have a writer get in touch with an article they’ve written that needs photos to accompany it. Often they might select a photographer to work on pictures to go with a story, or a writer to produce the words to go with a set of photos.
A successful career as a photographer or writer means creating strong relationships with editors.
Which stories and collaborations are you most proud of?
I remember a few years ago interviewing and photographing a man in El Salvador who’d been a child soldier during the Civil War. He was very grateful that someone was bothering to ask him about his experiences. He told me that no one had ever asked him questions about his life before.
Those kinds of moments you have with people and the times when you feel you’re telling the stories of people otherwise forgotten by the world have been the most satisfying for me to work on. I’ve covered human trafficking, violence, land rights and threats to indigenous people, threats to wildlife populations… Many times, these are articles about forgotten people or forgotten places that don’t get the attention they deserve or need.
Aside from those more serious stories, I’ve been very proud of many of the adventure travel articles and sets of pictures I’ve produced, such as in Hokkaido in northern Japan, in Chilean Patagonia, in the Himalayan mountains in Nepal or in Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans. Anytime that I feel my photography or writing is showing people something in the world that is new, that’s when I feel I’m really doing my job.
Graeme Green is a UK journalist and photographer for publications including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, BBC, The Sunday Telegraph, Wanderlust, South China Morning Post. Explore his website, or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.
See more of Graeme’s images in volume 49 of BEJournal.