Lessons from the Scene: Do Your Photos Provide Context For Your Subject? by Stanley Leary


by Stanley Leary

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Professional communicators work hard at getting a message across. But first they must get the audience’s attention.  There needs to be a “lead” or “hook” to stimulate their interest in the story.
Ted Koppel said that during his 25 years as anchor for Nightline, they spent the majority of their pre time on the first 10 seconds of the show. The hook is all-important.  If doesn’t work, no one will hear the message.
Right Context: How To Use a Quote
A tactic used by writers to grab the attention of readers is to lead with a quote. This is a powerful literary tool for hooking an audience. It is often misused. 
Quoting out of context is done quite often. There are two known common practices of misusing a quote - the straw man argument and the appeal to authority. Both of these can undermine the message.
Photographers are also guilty of taking photos out of context to create impact for a visual hook. If a writer or photographer uses the hook appropriately they will deliver context or s the hook.
Wire service photographers have used impact as a visual hook (to the detriment of the story-telling photo) for so long that we rarely see good examples of photos with any real context. The context has been handed over entirely to the writer.
Extreme close-up photos have extreme impact but, out of context, may lack any storytelling ability. Relating the subject to its surroundings can help tell the story of the subject, but impact is still needed.
Use the Environment for Impact and Context
A good example of the type of photo that can contain both impact and context is the environmental portrait. The subject is shown in their environment and the surroundings portray the person and help tell their story. A simple headshot shows what someone looks like, but the environment portrait can speak volumes about the person.
I grew up watching missionaries give slide shows in churches. Invariably most of the pictures they showed were tight headshots of some person looking into the camera. A friend of mine characterized these lacking-context-pictures as “People Who Need the Lord” photos. The pictures show what they look like, but tell me nothing about who they are.
Today I am often asked to speak to these missionary groups about how to improve their photography of their mission trips. My chief complaint about mission teams going somewhere and then showing their photos is the lack of environment in their photos. They have many “People Who Need the Lord” photos, which could have been made almost anywhere. Their photos don’t tell a story, they have little context. What does the country look like? How do they live? What do they eat?
I suggest to these groups that they make pictures that tell something about these folks Show the mother in her kitchen making a meal. Show the man at his job – what does he do to earn a living. Show the children and what they do for play.
Think of the photos as an introduction. How do we in America do introductions? After we exchange our names we usually ask what they do for a living or we ask about their family.
A real advantage of photography is how much can be told without having to speak a word. True masters of the craft use light and composition to make sense of all the clutter and show how things in the frame relate to one another. When the photo includes people expression and body language add even more context to the image.
Six Simple Steps
Here are six simple steps to help bring context to a photograph.
1. Determine the purpose of the photograph.
2. What is the mood for the photograph to be?
3. Determine the subject.
4. What should be included or excluded around the subject?
a. Do I include some of the environment in front of the subject?
b. Am I making an image that is just graphically strong or does the space around the subject give context?
c. What is in the background?
d. What is beside or on the same plane as the subject, giving I equal importance?
5. When do I press the shutter?
a. Are they interacting with another person?
b. Do I show a serious or light moment?
6. What about the light?
a. Do I use the natural light?
b. Do I bounce the flash?
c. Do I use professional lights?
Put your subjects in context when you photograph them and your pictures will truly be worth 10,000 words.