And the Story Goes…
She had to sleep with every light on or sleep would never come. She housed twenty in her room alone, and possibly double that in her living room. Should we even get started on the kitchen? When the sun started disappearing over the horizon, there was never a moment when the lights were off. She began at 6:00 in the summers and 4:00 in the winters and would walk counter clockwise throughout the rooms breathing in emphatically as each glowing bulb came to life. She had tall skinny lamps for illuminating the corners of her ceilings and short, squat plastic ones to force the darkened nooks to scream daylight. They were plastic due to the occasions when, feeling she may be competing against the sunset, she kicked them over in her haste. Time could not be wasted on cleaning up shards of broken lamp glass.
Was it the Boogeyman that compelled her to fear the fall of darkness? Possible alien abduction? Ghosts, ghouls, and drooling monsters? Couldn’t she just get a dog? She shrugged off those questions with a sigh. “I love daylight! If it’s always sunny my day never ends. It’s like I’m living one long, beautifully lit day.”
There is an element of truth embedded in this story about how I fall asleep at night. No, there is no seasonal ritual, but at times I discover that certain rooms must “check out” and questionable corners need to be lit. I would love to explain my obsession as a mere preference as the character in the above story does, but my situation is real—and the aforementioned is pure fiction. Most narrative works teeter between a factual occurrence and a fictionalized version by the author. I prefer to exaggerate the story further; draw the audience in with a detailed examination of a character’s odd, habitual actions. If a person relates to my main character’s quirks, then maybe I can be more comfortable with mine. Storytelling is the ultimate tool to relate an experience and draw a person into another realm of reality. How else could a person identify with a seemingly opposite being? If one hears or views a narrative unfolding, he must supply a logical placement for these characters and settings to briefly exist for the duration of the tale. If the story has a hint of realism, an audience member will believe it through the mere possibility of it having happened to someone somewhere. A story allows the mind to think; it is not just regurgitating facts from a report, instead it is interpreting and questioning the information it is receiving, creating its own greater narrative—the mind is alive.
Such is the case with visual storytelling, specifically photography, which has been perceived to be the ultimate tool in recording and relating actual events. In photography, to be a documentarian, which is discovering fascinating subject matter and displaying it to the viewer as seen, is to be a composer of information. To stage a photograph (when a photographer creates his own narrative by controlling every factor and detail to generate his vision from scratch) is to be a visual storyteller. The photographer is creating truth from “reality” by manipulating the subject matter into a compelling fashion and does not have to rely on the pure intrigue of the actual objects in the imagery. Critic and writer A.D. Coleman prefers to delineate these two types of photography by the terms informational versus contemplative/representational, (Coleman 246) or for my purposes, factual versus fictional. In the latter choice, the photographer is acting in directorial mode, similar to narrative film-making, and chooses to include or exclude any detail that is/is not conducive to his overall concept. As in writing, the photographer must decide how she desires her photographs to be read: like a news report or a paragraph from a greater work of fiction.
Narrative photography presents a question to the viewer, a sort of fill in the blanks of what has happened and is about to happen. Unlike film, or a novel where one can follow the main character throughout the story gathering insight into his motivation, there is only one single image, an introduction to an event or person. The narrative continues beyond the single frame; one has to decipher the information confronting him, make sense out of it, and decide how the story relates to his own reality. There is a difference between reality and truth, “What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.” (McKee 25) A narrative allows the mind to operate outside of its general margins and draw conclusions; one is not recounting history, but recreating it into his image using his own experiences.
Even with visual storytelling in photography, success is based on the artist’s ability to present an attention-grabbing idea worth an audience’s time. There must be a realization, a concept, and a point that allows the observer to relate, to discover a reason to care. According to Robert McKee, author of Story, “Master storytellers know how to squeeze life out of the least of things, while poor storytellers reduce the profound to the banal.” (McKee 28) My method of photography can be related to McKee’s statement coupled with Mark Twain’s assertion, “I like a story well told; that is why sometimes I am forced to tell it myself.” (Storytelling) I prefer my imagery to read as a paragraph from a greater work of fiction and the manipulation of subject matter to tell a story the way I believe it should be recounted is key. I choose to exaggerate the characters in my photographs into an odd juxtaposition of the mundane and fantasy—a fine line between fact and fiction.
The biggest component of my photographs and of a story is the main character. Without the believability of a character, the narration falls short. One has to feel, beyond a doubt, that the person in the story is capable of the tale that is being spun around his actions. The protagonist is what causes the viewer to relate to a story, so there has to be an element of comparison. “A character is a work of art, a metaphor for human nature;” (McKee 375) he is not real, but a conglomerate of any person that has inspired or drawn attention from the narrator. The character is indisputable in his actions; we believe him because his main motivation is desire- he is driven by an emotion, a belief, or a logic that matters. A strong character creates the story; a writer “doesn’t need to think about situations. The militant character creates his own situations.” (Egri 42) A reader/viewer will relate to a story (be it written or visual) based on how devoted the character is to his cause and how that blind fidelity speaks to the “real” human condition.
My characters are peers of mine photographed in normal environments clad in standard attire, but involved in situations that teeter on being over the top and strange. I present the viewer with a person who appears to be “ordinary” but upon closer inspection is acting on an obsession so dutifully that the image becomes uncanny. I hope to confront the viewer with a desire to believe that the character is so dissimilar to what he knows, simultaneously with feeling he is an exact replica of what he could become under a certain degree of pressure. For me, the possibility of the human extreme is what interests me the most in storytelling. My theme is utter amusement with the obsessive, quirky nature of humans and the importance that quality plays in making us who we are. Our own neurotic devices can overwhelm us so that our own perception of normalcy is defunct. People behave out of habit—directly from an inexplicable impulse, where it may seem very real to them, but completely out of the ordinary to an onlooker. I enjoy establishing the tension of watching a character fanatically perform while quietly questioning the ability of one to similarly react.
Humor is an essential part of my story telling process. In comedies, the ideal character is guided by a blind obsession, much like the dramatic subject, (McKee) that causes the viewer to find his antics absurdly funny. There is an innocence—almost an endearing quality that makes us pity the person but concurrently laugh at him. Secretly we relate. The greatest example of the comic character that causes one to simultaneously laugh and blushingly connect is the team Abbot and Costello. What compels them to flutter about the screen in such a ludicrously comical manner is pure neurosis. We laugh as we watch their quirks unfold into a greater confusion, contributing to the overall narrative. The comedy is exaggerated, and it must be, in order to create layers of meaning. Of course, many could dispute that the level of intellectual depth of Abbott and Costello teeters on slapstick comedy. But there is an element of truth. We can presume that there has been a time when we act so foolishly that it seems unreal—what caused us to behave in such a manner? Figuratively stepping inside an amplified example of human absurdity on screen is “to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.” (McKee 5) A person becomes interested in the narrative because it is easier to laugh at someone else’s foibles. But ironically, there is the discovery that what one is really finding humorous is an exaggerated reflection of the human spirit at an extreme.
Even if an image appears inflated and comical, the beauty of a photograph is that people want to believe it (Coleman 246). In a staged photograph, the scene still had to occur for it to be reproduced. The person in the photograph partook in the strange conduct that is now being represented for all to engage in, so there is a conflict of falsified depiction versus the viewer’s desire to believe the subject exists because it had to happen for it to be recorded. I like to play on this tension that is caused by staging an event that at first appears to be a daily routine but upon further inspection is an eerie simulation of that incident exaggerated by the character’s fanatical actions. I will use one of my photographs as an example to clarify this idea, by discussing the screenplay that is paired with the image. All my images are inspired by text. There is a written brainstorming process that occurs where the character creates the scene for me.