Learning to “Peel the Onion” in Storytelling

Stanley teaching at University of Nations in Kona, Hawaii. [top photo by Dorie Griggs, bottom photo by Robin Nelson] [Nikon D810, 24.0-70.0 mm f/2.8, ISO 3200, ƒ/7.1, 1/60]
While in college majoring in social work I discovered the power of photography. Specifically, I discovered that photojournalism did the best job I could find in educating people about the world around them.

Before graduating with my degree in social work I had to do an internship in the field. I found an internship working at the mental health center in Kinston, NC.

When counseling a person, I would “peel the onion” as we would say to move from the symptoms to the cause for a problem in a person’s life. Most of the time when someone was suffering it takes them longer to see the root cause of their problem.

While I was in college I was also taking photos for the school newspaper. I saw quickly how a photograph helped “peel the onion” for a community. Mirroring is a therapeutic technique where you repeat back to a client, usually in your own words but sometimes word for word, the idea that has just been expressed. It can literally be as simple as: Client: “I felt hurt and confused.”

I discovered that a photograph was even more powerful than the mirroring technique.

I just finished grading the students in Introduction to Photojournalism Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

More than half of the two classes I taught had never owned a camera other than the one on their phone. I was teaching them the mechanics of photography and also how to tell stories as a photojournalist.

What I discovered is the one skill that they needed more than how to use their camera was how to “peel the onion” of the subject.

Togo, West Africa [Nikon D5, Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.8G, ISO 100, ƒ/1.8, 1/200]
The photojournalists that consistently tell powerful stories are the ones who spend more time getting to know their subjects.

I would love to help you if you don’t know how to “peel the onion” of a story. In January I am going to Lima, Peru with a few other instructors who have the same calling to help 10 workshop participants to become storytellers using their cameras.

Each person will work with a person to tell their story. While working on the story they will have one-on-one time with the instructors to coach them each day through the process. By the end of a week they will show to the community a short 3 to 5-minute video that has the subject telling their own story.

I will do this again in March in Trinidad and then this coming summer we will bring the team together again and go to Bucharest, Romania. Maybe you want to join us.

James Dockery enjoys taking photos and showing the boys in the Balkans their photos.

Go here to sign up for our trip.  You can also contact me for one-on-one classes or we can put together a workshop for your organization.