Successful storytelling: how to keep audiences captivated

Leading professionals reveal the secrets behind impactful photojournalism and share tips on how to develop and deliver your story in a changing world.
Two people look at framed photographs displayed at the Visa pour l'Image international festival of photojournalism in France.

A tight edit is among the advice from photojournalism professionals for creating compelling stories.

Stories help us to make sense of the world, and photography is a language that everyone can understand.

Successful visual storytelling should be engaging, informative and clear in its narrative. But that doesn't mean that the images you'll need to capture are obvious, or that it's easily apparent what should be included or excluded from an edit. So, what exactly is photojournalism storytelling and how does the genre tell a story?

In essence, photojournalism uses photographic images as the key component in a news story or article, the written word playing a supporting role in the storytelling process. Powerful and evocative imagery is therefore the essential ingredient to help capture and retain the audience's attention. In a world awash with digital images, less can be more. "When you have your story, you really have to edit," says journalist, educator and former Head of Photography at AFP Francis Kohn. He advises getting a good editor because "you can tell a very good story with 15 photos, or fewer".

Each year, many of the industry's best visual storytellers attend Professional Week at Visa pour l'Image in Perpignan, France. The event is an opportunity for picture editors and photographers to share their advice for developing a story with like-minded individuals. Here, Brent Stirton, Thomas Borberg, Laura Morton, Ilvy Njiokiktjien, Ivor Prickett and Pascal Maitre share how to identify a good story, when to know it's finished, and what to do with it next. We've also spoken to documentary and portrait photographer Natalya Saprunova – who was the recipient of the 2022 Canon Female Photojournalist Grant – about her experiences.

What's the story?

Natalya is a freelance photojournalist whose work explores modern society, with a particular focus on how indigenous communities are adapting to a changing world. She believes photojournalism has changed in recent years and suggests being discerning about how you put your work into the public domain. "Nowadays, people are viewing stories much more on the internet and on their mobile phones, but it's still very important to get your pictures published in magazines and to show them as prints at exhibitions," she says. "How you tell your story depends in part on the magazine, exhibition, festival or online media that you're going to use.

"Publishers will have their own criteria for how they want to run a story so you need to get guidelines in advance to make sure you deliver what's needed."

Even when working to a brief, Natalya often tries to keep her options open. "Later on, you might want to create a photo book, host an exhibition, or submit a panel of prints for a festival. It's good to have a range of images so you can tell the same story using different sets of pictures, tailored to various outlets."

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Find and pitch a strong angle

For Natalya, the human angle works best. "I like to tell stories about people and their way of life," she explains. "To do this effectively, I need to spend a lot of time with people – get to know them, see how they live and work and what's important to them. An agency can be helpful in pitching ideas for projects to various publishers. It's also good to build relationships with staff at magazines and other media outlets. That way, you can pick up assignments for stories as well as pitch your own ideas."

While it's advantageous to have more than one angle in mind, "it's usually best if a story is set in the context of what's going on in the world at the time," Natalya advises.

A herd of cows walks across a snowy landscape with an open sky above them, shot by documentary photographer Natalya Saprunova on a Canon EOS R3.

While shooting the story of climate change and its effect on how people are living in one of the coldest places on earth, Natalya and her Canon EOS R3 were subjected to temperatures as cold as -45°C to -60°C. These animals in an area of permafrost used to have to be led to water by a cattle farmer, but they now make the journey there and back unguided. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 1/1000 sec, f/10 and ISO 1000. © Natalya Saprunova

Isolate your themes

"The thing with being a photojournalist is there's a journalist aspect – and that needs to play out in the captions you write and the choices you make, in terms of what you prioritise in your visual assets," says documentary photographer and multi award-winning Canon Ambassador Brent Stirton. "What are the important aspects? In your edit, isolate things that really speak to those themes, then ask yourself, what's the sequence? How do I put these things together in such a way that, one, I engage an editor and, two, I engage an audience?"

Discuss your ideas

"My best advice for developing a story is to talk to other people about it before you go out and when you come back," says Thomas Borberg, Photo Editor-in-Chief at Politiken newspaper in Denmark.

"Share your story, share your raw material and get feedback, because the editing process is as important as the pre-work that happens before you leave for the assignment," he continues. "There are no rules about how many pictures that story should contain – it depends on the story. Luckily there are very few rules, and if there are rules, I think you should actually break them."

A tent pitched up on a snowy landscape, surrounded by trees covered in snow, while a campfire burns behind the tent, captured on a Canon EOS R3.

Natalya has completed several documentary projects on nomadic people. This image, from a series exploring how reindeer herders survive in the extreme cold, shows a permanent camp set up along one of their regular routes. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 1/3 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 4000. © Natalya Saprunova

Do your research

"I think the first part of developing a good story is doing your research and reading and consuming as much material and information as possible, whether it's in the form of news, documentaries or books," says photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Ivor Prickett. "I find ideas from all of those places.

"Consume as much as you can and then, when you've got a good idea, give yourself time to explore it, because not everything that looks great on paper is going to work as a photo story. You've got to try a lot of different things to get the right idea going, and it can take a long time."

Natalya believes in sticking with a story where possible but she is also realistic. "I hate giving up on a project," she says. "If it's a story I want to tell, I tend to stick with it for as long as it takes. If a job is worth doing, it can't be rushed. Ultimately though, when photojournalism is your livelihood, you have to be able to move on if things aren't working out and start a new project."

Experiment with different media

"It's not just about images anymore," continues Natalya. "You need to think about how you're going to reach your target audience and use different media effectively. With so much publishing being done online, photojournalism has become more of a multimedia entity, so it pays to use mixed media to get your message across. It can be challenging to add video when you're shooting stills, especially when you're working alone, but there are times when movie footage can be highly effective in adding to the narrative."

However, strong stills remain paramount. "Composition is key," says Natalya. "It's important to keep your eyes open and look for what's interesting. Sometimes it'll be the landscape and how the lighting adds to the mood of what you want to convey. At other times, a close-up portrait sends the right message. Environmental portraits can be vital for connecting the person with their role in the story. Ultimately, most stories are about the interaction between people and their surroundings."

Find out what the experts had to say about visual storytelling at Visa pour l'Image 2019:

A person holds a hot steel rod, the end of which is glowing red. Only the silhouette of the person is visible as light creeps in through the many slits on the left side of the room. This photograph was captured by James Nachtwey in Czechoslovakia in 1990.

James Nachtwey on the power of photojournalism

With a career spanning more than four decades and documenting some of the most impactful and unjust global events, the eminent photographer reflects on why photojournalism remains an important calling.
Photojournalist Laura Morton speaking at Visa pour l'Image 2019.

Be succinct

"A good story is a story you can say in one line," says photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Pascal Maitre, who has spent more than 30 years covering stories in over 40 countries. "If you have to stop to explain your story, it means it would be very complex and if it's complex you will need many pictures, and magazines don't have the pages. If you are a photographer, you need to have a story with huge visual potential.

"At the beginning, you have an idea of what you will need to tell a story. Think of these stories as different chapters: you need all of these points and when you get a good picture in each part, you can say the story is more or less finished. You can do four years, but you will not get too much more. It's good to move on to the next story."

Emma-Lily Pendleton and Matthew Richards

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