While shooting an assignment about a year after turning professional, I had a light-bulb moment. I was in Tanzania photographing the annual wildebeest migration as it passed across the Grumeti River. It was a slow day and photographic opportunities were few and far between.
I don’t know if you’ve ever paid attention to wildebeest, but they’re not Africa’s most alluring creatures. Africans often describe them as ‘the animal God created out of the leftover parts of other animals’.
Don’t get me wrong, I like wildebeest, it’s just that they don’t do much. Their day consists of walking in a wide circle eating grass and that’s about it. And so, two days into a three-week project, I was struggling for ideas. How do you continually photograph what amounts to a large brown antelope standing in a big brown field?
And then it struck me. I started to think about migration and what it really means. Migration is movement. It’s the movement of animals – or people – from point A to point B. Movement! Movement, not wildebeest, was the real story I was there to photograph. I started to create images that captured the story of the migration, not just individually but in a series – a set of images able to stand on their own while having a collective continuity.
Moments and time
There is a skill to creating photographs that work as a series and it involves changing the way we see the world. My close friend John is a former BBC cameraman. We sometimes work together on wildlife documentary projects and have shared many evenings around dinner tables all over the world. Invariably, on those nights our conversations turn to our different approaches to what, essentially, is the same line of work – storytelling.
As a stills photographer, I see the world in moments – isolated instances in time, captured in fractions of seconds that tell a complete story in a single frame. John is shooting 24 frames per second. He doesn’t see the world in individual moments but in sequences, always thinking about how what he is currently shooting will fit with what he shot yesterday and what he’s going to shoot tomorrow. For him, it’s about flow.
The secret to shooting a successful photographic portfolio is combining the two parallel but different ways of seeing and thinking – moments and time.
Here’s an example:
The establishing shot reveals the location of our series
The long shot places the subject in the location
The medium shot introduces us to the subject
The close-up connects viewer and subject
The extreme close-up reveals something we don’t normally see or pay attention to
So why does this work?
In filmmaking there is a set of standard shots, which include the establishing shot, the long shot, the medium shot, the close-up and the extreme close-up. Each shot forms a layer in the construction of the story and the idea can be borrowed in photographic storytelling.
The establishing shot tells us the location, the long shot places the subject in that location, the medium shot introduces us to the character, the close-up then connects us with the character and finally the extreme close-up reveals an aspect of the character we wouldn’t normally see.
Together, this type of series creates a complete picture that would be difficult to convey through a single image.