Not long after my family moved to a new neighborhood, I was wakened one morning by the sound of a lawn mower.
I stuck my head out the door and was startled to see an elderly gentleman in a plaid shirt and World War II ball cap tending to my yard.
His name was Marshall, and he was 90 years old when I had the honor of meeting him. Between his visits to bring me fresh banana bread baked by his daughter or the latest Reader’s Digest, or the many times I found him looking after my yard, I was able to learn a little about this man, who had once lived adventurously and was now adventurously alone.
During the 3 years we’ve been neighbors, I had my third child, and found it harder and harder to show my appreciation for Marshall’s ministrations. Still, he cleaned our alleys; dug a ditch so his irrigation ran into my yard; brought trinkets for my new baby, whom he’d repeatedly forget had been born, and would gasp in shock at seeing yet another new baby. He must have thought we were a family of rabbits!
I’d stopped popping my head out of my door when I’d hear a lawn mower, but one summer morning, ambulance sirens brought me running outside. Marshall had fallen, thankfully without serious injury, but he needed assistance. That was the morning I realized I needed to make time to find out his story.
He laughed when I asked him if I could document a day in his life, but he felt as much as I did that the story of a veteran is to be honored and shared. We designated a time to meet at his house, and I soon found myself eating ice cream at his dining room table, which was covered with newspapers, photographs and books about his life.
He started talking about the war and his whirlwind romance with Lenore, his wife of 63 years. I learned how Marshall had proposed to her in a letter, and how he nearly missed his own wedding when Lenore received word his ship had been lost at sea. I met Muffins the cat, elderly in his own right, and helped Marshall as I could while he tended to his backyard. As he went about his day, I photographed him. At days end, I went home with a single rose cut from a bush Lenore planted when the house was newly built.
There are six key frames a documentary photographer can take to creating a more compelling narrative. Let’s walk through what they are and how I used them using the documentary I created about Marshall.
An impression image is a single photograph that summarizes your entire story. Imagine it as the one that would be used on the project’s front cover to give viewers a good idea of what the story’s about.
This image isn’t necessarily something I set out to capture, but something I keep in mind as I move through my story. What messages are present? What part of this story do I want my audience to connect with? How can I show that in a single photograph?
2. Establish the scene
Upon entering my scene, I look for elements that are critical to the story, or tell us something about the characters. How do they live? What about the place is important to the story? Every time my characters switch rooms or move around one, or when someone new walks into the scene, I try to take a new establish-the scene-image.
Detail photographs tend to carry the least amount of story. They’re meant to boil down the scene down into a single thought, like, It’s a wedding band: She’s married. Details I’d want in Marshall’s story include: Wrinkles around the eyes: He’s aged. A pile of laundry in the corner: He’s busy. A photograph of a group of soldiers: He was part of significant group.
Details highlight specific information about your characters and should highlight important themes of the story. For example, here are details I took around Marshall’s home that ended up being unimportant to the story.
Nothing in these six images below offers new information about who Marshall is or changes the direction of the story. Even though everything in Marshall’s home can tell us something about him, it doesn’t mean I should include them. Everyone has items that represent them well and items that are just “there.” As we get to know our subjects, the important things will surface.
A portrait is the most widely overlooked image in documentary work. Perhaps it’s considered non-documentary because it may be directed or planned. To me, a portrait has the ability to carry just as much story as a candid image. We communicate through eye contact, and it can feel like our character is directly communicating with our audience when we establish strong eye contact between them and the camera.
I’ve found the best way to get a character engaged is to give him something meaningful to think about. For example, Marshall’s story revolved heavily around his love for and loss of Lenore, his wife of more than 60 years.
I asked Marshall to sit on his couch, framed by two portraits of Lenore, and to think about what those 60 years gave him and how much he wished she were here with him now. Can you read his love and loss on his face? Do you think a thought has the ability to change a photograph?
5. The process
Most likely your characters won’t be sitting in one place for the entire day. If they seem inclined to, get them moving and involved in the things they enjoy! Process images are meant to show interacting, or engaging with the things around them. As the photographer, look for that action!
6. The conclusion
If the first impression is the front cover of your character’s book, the conclusion is the back cover. It is typically narrative heavy, and contains multiple themes in the story.
My time with Marshall revolved around his service in WWII, his family, and his ongoing service to the community. To finish, I chose this image of Marshall walking away from a banner that his family had hung for his birthday.
Throughout the narrative, Marshall felt like a man standing alone: alone after the war and alone after the death of his wife. This last piece of information lets the audience know he is not fully alone. You leave knowing he has been well loved.