Lesson from the Scene: Are You Adding Context to Your Photos?

by Stanley Leary

Ted Koppel once said that during his years at ABC News Nightline, his staff spent the majority of their pre-broadcast prep time on the first 10 seconds of the show. That’s how important a “lead” or “hook” is to stimulating interest in a story. But focusing on a hook can backfire, too — if it doesn’t help to get the larger message across.
As photographers, we all want our images to have a great visual hook. But if that hook is not in service to our story or message, it doesn’t help our audience. Too many wire-service photographers substitute visual pyrotechnics for visual storytelling. The result is that the audience must rely entirely on a story’s writer to understand the context for the photographer’s image.
The Environmental Portrait
Extreme close-ups can have an impact on viewers — but often do little to advance a story. Relating the subject to its surroundings can provide context, but without impact, the image will never find an audience.
An environmental portrait is a good example of a photo that can combine impact and context. The subject is shown in his or her environment, and the surroundings provide information about the subject. A standard headshot shows what someone looks like, but an environmental portrait can speak volumes about a person.

A priest at Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell, Ga., talks with students during chapel.

I grew up watching missionaries give slideshows in churches. Most of these slideshows were comprised of tight headshots without context. A friend of mine called these images “People Who Need the Lord” photos; they showed what the individuals looked like, but told us nothing about who they really were.

Today, I often advise missionary groups on photographing their mission trips. I tell them that their photos need to answer the questions of the audience back home. What does the country look like? How do the people there live? What do they eat?
I tell them to show the mother in the kitchen making a meal, the man at his job, the children at play. When we meet someone new, how do we introduce ourselves? Typically, after we exchange names, we ask the other person what they do for a living, or we ask about their family. It’s the same way with our photos; think of them as an introduction to the subject.
Telling Stories without Words
To make sure you are adding the proper context to your photos, you should start by having a firm understanding of the purpose of the assignment. Then you can determine the mood and subject of the image.

David Parker graduated from Georgia Tech this spring with a degree in architecture.
Once you’ve identified your subject, you must decide what to include or exclude around it. What do you want in the background, and why? Ask yourself, “Am I making an image that is just graphically strong, or is the background adding to the image’s meaning?”
The timing of the photo is also critical to context. Should you press the shutter when the subject is interacting with another person? Should you shoot during a light-hearted or serious moment? What expressions or body language are most communicative?
True masters of the craft also use light and composition to make sense of all the elements in an image, and to show how things in the frame relate to one another.
As photographers, we are visual people. We are drawn to powerful images. But never forget that we can have the greatest impact when we are able to tell a story without speaking a word.