Reading Reflection: Lamott – Character, Plot, Dialogue, Set Design

Character – The obvious answer for this section as it can be applied to documentary photography is get to know your subjects! This entails them getting to know me as well. People are more apt to open up their lives to someone they trust. Concealing my life does not lead to trust.

This getting to know the subject will lead to greater understanding and help the photographer anticipate their actions in any given situation. This will lead to better storytelling pictures I believe. This knowledge will help me anticipate their reactions.

I also like was Lamott has to say about showing everything about the subjects – their faults as well as their good points. This leads to better story and that ultimately is what will connect with the viewer. I’ve worked with print reporters who have struggled with this battle of “writing for the subject.” I have also questioned my photo edits asking myself if I was just choosing pictures that subjects would like or whether they were truly the most storytelling images for whatever I was covering.

Plot – “Plot grows out of character.” While this may be true in the fiction world I’m not sure it is true of documentary photography. I need to have an inkling of what the plot will be before I start a project. This takes shape in the initial interview (either formally or informally) when I’m deciding to cover something.

However, “… something must be at stake or you will have no tension and your readers [viewers] will not turn the pages.” This is the “complication” that Rita speaks of. It is the payoff for why I am spending my time and energy and why the viewer should spend theirs.

I like what she says about having a disinterested party look at the work. Having an objective, and respected, voice in the editing process. Someone who can metaphorically “kill the cats” that I have become too attached to.

“Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention.” “setup, buildup, payoff.” – Keys to great storytelling whether in words or visuals.

I found the ornaments-with-no-Christmas-tree analogy to re-enforce the five-cents-of-string concept for holding photo essays together.

Dialogue – This one I had the most trouble relating to documentary photography. I think it comes back to getting to know your subjects. Not asking about process or what they do but rather who they are and why they do it. I suppose it can also refer to recognizing and writing good quotes when I hear them.

In the multimedia landscape, I think it refers to audio. In this way subjects can tell their own story and their voice can add power to the visuals. Again this depends on interviewing techniques to get subjects past the “process” of what they do and into the “why.” Subjects describing what visuals show is extremely boring.

Set Design – On the most basic level this is about scene setters/overall photos – where the action is taking place.

But beyond that, environments in photographs can be extremely revealing about the subjects and their motivations and character. Details can speak volumes. I’ve always believed in the axiom that five minutes in someone’s house tells more about them than hours of conversation.


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February 2011
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