A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to National Geographic’s A New Age of Exploration exhibition in Taipei, Taiwan. The exhibition showcased many popular photographs published by National Geographic, including the famous Afghan Girl which brought attention to the plights of the Afghans during the Soviet invasion in the 1980’s. As I walked past the hundreds of photographs on display, I realized that every one of these photos has a story behind it, and it is up to the photographers to tell it to the viewers.
Among all the photographs displayed at the exhibition, the one below strikes me the most in its use of clashing elements. It is a photograph by National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita. It perfectly demonstrates how photographers can pique viewers’ interest and make them wanting to know more about the back story by subtly incorporating an element that does not fit into the general atmosphere in the photos.
In this photo, a group of Iraqi Kurdish women gathers in between two vehicles in what appears to be a wedding function. The women are in very beautiful traditional garments, with bright smiles on their faces and looking at something or someone off the frame. Overall it is a celebratory atmosphere, with pleasant expression on the women’s faces and beautiful sky in the background. However, the woman in the center is carrying an assault rifle, which to the Westerners is rather awkward and may be a bit uncomfortable.
The incorporation of the rifle in the frame is a brilliant idea. The rifle serves as a contrasting point to the overall atmosphere, a reminder of what life in that part of the world is like. Had the rifle been left out, this is just another photo you see in daily life and it would not have evoked such a psychological response from the viewers. Although it almost blends in with the woman’s dress and not very visible, when viewers spot the rifle, they may question the presence of such a deadly weapon, and begin to see the story Mr. Yamashita is trying to tell, which is the how the region’s instability is affecting everyone. Mr. Yamashita’s own caption for this photo says it all: “Despite the happy occasion, war is never over for these wedding guests in Jundian, Iraq.”
Another favorite of mine is the photograph below. It was shot by Frans Lanting, a renowned Dutch photographer who is regularly commissioned by National Geographic and other media outlets.
The composition of this photo is very simple. The three penguins are positioned in the center of the frame with no foreground elements and a very simple, uniformed background. The icy, barren background reminds the viewers how cold it is in Antarctic, and how difficult it is to survive in that part of the world. Despite its simplicity, the photo is very interesting in what it is showing: a little penguin is learning how to walk while its parents are watching over it. The bond between the parents and the child serves as the main element that clashes with the background, and draws the viewers’ attention more than anything. Although Mr. Lanting has shot many more photos of penguins during his trip to the Antarctic, this one interests me the most because it has a story that “resonates” with me more than the others.
You do not have to strictly follow any guidelines to be a photographer. Although composition rules and the use of lighting and colors may make your photos attractive, it is not everything there is to photography. You will need to rely on your own instincts, look for interesting stories in life, capture and share them. Photography is storytelling, and it is up to you to tell a great story.