NPPA Annual Meeting at their new location the Grady College of Journalism

Mark E. Johnson is on the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication faculty at the University of Georgia, teaching photojournalism and multimedia journalism courses. He talks to the board about some of the expenses associated with the offices now being in the school. [Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/3.6 1/80]

This photo is of the annual board meeting for the National Press Photographers Association at Grady College of Journalism with the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.

This month, the NPPA moved the organization’s headquarters to the Grady College of Journalism. The move will cut their overhead costs due to the school giving them office space with minimal expenses like phone and internet connections.

NPPA, like all photography associations, has been losing members due to the industry staff jobs going away in so many places around the globe.

Mickey H. Osterreicher, NPPA’s general counsel, tells the board how last year they helped a member in a lawsuit where his rights were violated and allowed with a $200,000 settlement. The person donated $3,000 to NPPA legal fund. [Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/4 1/250]

Community coordination has shaped and advanced America since its birth and has historically set America apart from many other nations. NGOs and other associations have formed many places worldwide, but it has been a foundation in American society.

Associations organize for all types of purposes, but there are some recurring benefits they typically provide their members, including:

  • Education/professional development
  • Information, research, statistics
  • Standards, codes of ethics, certification
  • A forum to discuss common problems and solutions
  • Opportunities to further a specific mission, including volunteering and community service
  • Providing a community of interest.
Mark E. Johnson helps answer the board’s questions on the expenses NPPA will still be responsible for at the Grady School of Journalism. [Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/9 1/15]
With publications like newspapers and magazines going out of business in record numbers over the past five to ten years, the community has shrunk for working staff photographers.
I am sure I shocked many on the board when I decided to attend their open board meeting and sit and observe. It is like watching a sausage processing plant. Just as families around America had had conversations around their kitchen tables about cutting back when a spouse lost a job, the NPPA board was evaluating all items line by line on the budget.
The board voted on parts of the 2015 Annual Budget. [Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/3.2 1/110]
As I drove to Athens, I admit I have been quite ambivalent about what I get for my membership. However, after sitting and listening to the board focus on the budget and then on my drive home, I realized that one of the core reasons those in the industry should support an association in these times is the same reason we started them years ago. One thing that continues to stand out as one of the most important reasons is “a forum to discuss common problems and solutions.”
Look through the bullet list and see if it makes sense to let an association like NPPA die or join and support the organization. What would fill the vacuum for the association’s role in our profession?
The industry’s biggest struggle is a lack of clear understanding of the direction we should be taking. So what specific mission do we now move towards?

I don’t think anyone has yet to find a crystal ball that gives insight into what we will be doing five or ten years from now. However, I think we are starting to realize the core things we do that aren’t related to gear for the first time in a very long time. We have defined so much of our industry by equipment, and now, with the daily changes, we are looking for the core skills we still have from the beginning of the profession that we will most likely continue.

Time for putting our heads together, I think, rather than doing this alone. Have you joined NPPA?

If not, go here to join

Then get involved and be part of the discussion.

Storytelling?–I don’t think so

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 7200, ƒ/5.6, 1/250


I don’t think portraits tell stories but are part of the story. For the most part, most portraits are the nouns of a sentence. For a complete sentence, you need a verb.

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 280, ƒ/5.6, 1/250


Yes, this photo has a subject and a verb that makes it storytelling. However, one image often lacks all the elements in a complete story. This is where caption can help make up the missing parts.

Most storytellers agree you need five elements for a story—five main elements of a story: setting, plot, characters, conflict, and theme.

Subject vs. Author

Great storytelling is when you never notice the author/photographer. However, today I would say too many people think they are doing storytelling. It is all about the author/photographer.

I love this photo of my wife and me with the founder of Chick-fil-A, Truett Cathy. I love telling the story of how Truett’s son Bubba asked me to give him my camera to take the photo.

Too often, the photo is what I think our generation over-emphasizes as storytellers. As a result, the story becomes more about looking at who I am with and what I am doing. Don’t you wish you were here?

Sure take these photos and even share them on your social media, but don’t let these replace storytelling where you tell the subject’s story.

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 10000, ƒ/5, 1/100

This young lady is peaking in and seeing does she want to be a part of this brand new Young Life club at the Rancho el Paraíso located in the Agalta Valley of Honduras. Inside the room, Daniela Tereza Perez is talking to the other youth. HOI helped bring Young Life to their campus to help reach the child in the area.

If I do my job just right, I had you clicking on HOI to learn more. So I am pulling you into the story.

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 450, ƒ/8, 1/250–off-camera flash using the Neewer TT850 flash & Neewer 433MHz Wireless 16 Channel Flash Remote Trigger

In my opinion–Don’t confuse a lovely portrait with storytelling. It is a noun that needs help to make a story.

Think of it this way: if you are telling a good story, everyone who sees it will take away the same story. The story impacts audiences differently, but they will be able to tell the story. Likewise, looking at a person’s portrait allows each person to make up what they think the story is about. 

Great Photographers are like Great Fishermen

Alaska [photo by Don Rutledge]

Fishermen know the habits of fish and know they are creatures of habit. So they work hard to be in the best spot to drop their lines to catch fish when they bite.

There is a lot of waiting for the fishermen. I have sat for hours waiting for nibbles; then suddenly, you can catch fish as quickly as you can put the line back in the water.

Waiting takes a lot of time for the fishermen. The photographer spends time waiting for people. However, too many people live by the saying, “Be picky with who you invest your time in; wasted time is worse than wasted money.”

Dominican Republic [photo by Don Rutledge]

I think many, especially myself, for the first few years of my career, didn’t spend enough time on a subject when I had the time.

If I could boil down to one of the most significant differences between Don Rutledge and other photographers, I would say his photos were better because he had more patience and worked situations longer than anyone. But, unfortunately, he would be waiting so long that many writers and people who traveled with Don would say he would disappear into the room’s woodwork.

Oklahoma [photo by Don Rutledge]

Looking at Contact Sheets

I wish I could share the contact sheets of Don’s work, especially his coverage of Bailey King. But unfortunately, I don’t have easy access to them.

You would see situations with slight variance back to back and over time, then there would be about two or three lovely images, then maybe a frame or two more Don would move on to a new situation.

The difference between Don’s contact sheets and everyone else is how consistently Don would stay with subjects and then have an outstanding shot. You could almost look at the last 3 to 5 images in a series and always pick a winner.

Today I watch many photographers relying on their LCD on the back of the camera. They look, and if they think they got the photo, they move on.

Brazil [photo by Don Rutledge]

Don would ask me what I saw and why I started taking those photos when he saw some, and I moved on to a new situation. What is it you noticed that you were trying to capture? Then he would ask why he didn’t stay long with the problem.

Over and over, I watched Don review the photographer’s contact sheets, and the constant theme I heard over and over was that you need to stay longer on the subject and let it happen. So if you feel like you saw something, you will most likely see it again.

Creatures of Habit

People are like all animals. We are creatures of habit. Dave Black knows this all too well with professional athletes. They work so hard and are creatures of habit that they will go through the same routine repeatedly. So he would study tapes of athletes so he could anticipate their actions.

Don Rutledge [photo by Ken Touchton]

Don wanted to capture moments better, so he studied other photographers to see what tips he could pick up. It was common for Don to call up a newspaper and ask if he could ride along with some of the photographers while they were working.

While Don picked up some tips, he was also surprised at how often photographers rushed through assignments. One time they were covering a factory when the president asked if they would like a tour to see how they make their product. Don wanted to go on the tour, but the photographer he was shadowing didn’t want to stay. They left the place so the photographer could go and sit at a restaurant and drink a cup of coffee.

When Don told me this story, he told me this happens more often than he could remember.

The other day Mark Sandlin and I were catching up on memories of Don when this tidbit about Don came up. Mark pretty much talked about the same memories, but they were his of Don.

Maybe the one essential thing Don did better than everyone else was spending time with his subjects long enough to learn and capture those moments that encapsulated the person. He was so good at capturing a person’s character in a photograph.

The other thing that happens when you wait like a fisherman for a great photo—your compositions are stronger. You compose and wait for the characters to be the creatures of habit. You can anticipate just like the fishermen.

Maybe this is why so many fishermen enjoy certain fishing spots—they, too, become like a composition.

France [photo by Don Rutledge]

“What you invest your time in defines who you are,” said noted author & speaker Todd Duncan.

Don Rutledge spent his life investing in subjects with his camera telling their stories. His photos changed people’s lives. So many readers of the stories he produced would feel a call to help those in the stories and people like them. The photos also blessed the subjects of the stories by changing their lives forever.

Don’s investment in people changed their lives for the better.

Photographers digital has divided us.

Christians in Photojournalism July meeting in suburbs of Atlanta, GA

Staff photographers have always had a built-in community in their workplaces. Freelance photographers had some community through their professional labs and camera stores in the days of film.

In the days of film, even when you processed your own film as a staff photographer or were a freelance photographer dropping your film off at a professional lab, you could interact with other photographers.

Just as indoor plumbing did to the watering hole and air conditioning to front porches, digital photography eliminated the informal gathering of photographers.

Genesis 2:18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. …”

Most still photographers work alone as compared to motion photographers who work in teams on film projects.

When you work with freelancers, you learn about depression. Once I have built a good relationship and can be open and honest with freelancers, many of whom suffer from depression.

A lack of solid relationships is a critical risk factor for major depression and addiction. At a minimum, going into an office every day requires you to shower, get dressed, and at least nod to a couple of people. Unfortunately, freelancers are in danger of having less sustained human contact.

Freelancers go through feast and famine periods. As a result, they have less access to the health, retirement, and insurance benefits that may help traditionally employed folks sleep a little better at night.

Jason Getz shares some tips and wisdom he had gained after the Atlanta Journal & Constitution let him go as well as Phil Skinner and Johnny Crawford when they downsized their photo department from 10 to 7 positions at the end of 2013.

We had a meeting of Christians in Photojournalism at my house yesterday, and three photographers who lost their jobs this past year at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution were there. We all enjoyed seeing each other’s work and listening to how everyone learns to adjust to this ever-changing industry.

Hebrews 10:24-25 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

One of the things that Jason, Phil, and Johnny talked about after losing their positions at the AJC was the loss of a built-in community. So now they must be intentional and reach out to friends.

There’s an App for that

One reason social media is so successful is that we all crave community. For example, CIP uses Facebook to announce our meetings, and I know some photo clubs that use an app called Meetup. Meetups are neighbors getting together to learn something, do something, and share something.

I think the more you have in common, the better the community can be for you. Combining faith and work is an excellent way for freelancers to build a strong community.

Johnny Crawford shared with the group his new direction of pursuing teaching photography. He is working on his master’s degree to open up more doors for him to teach.

Building the informal into the formal

One of the best things about the days we gathered around the local lab and camera stores was the informal serendipitous moments. For example, you may see a photographer working next to you on the light table while editing. I remember this often worked spur conversations, and I learned a lot during those moments.

When Christians in the Photojournalism group meet, the 5—minutes we give to everyone who comes to share their work with the group is the highlight.

Sometimes people are looking for help on a project, and many times they share a recent project.

Jason Getz shares a pleasant surprise of getting to fly in a helicopter with the groom at a wedding in Savannah. 

Formalize the informal

I encourage you to find a group where you can be in dialogue with the other photographers. It would help if you had a place that accepts you as a person and let you share your work, and you get to see their work. In addition, you need to be able to ask questions and share your insights.

Check out our group as a possible group to join at Christians in Photojournalism.

Depth-of-field is more than Aperture

[Photo 1] Egypt—Missionary Mike Edens (left) worked closely with Egyptian Baptist pastors trying to enhance their discipleship and pastoral ministries. These pastors—(left to right) Mikhail Shehata Ghaly and Anwar Dakdouk—took MasterLife discipleship training in Cyprus during 1984. [photo by Don Rutledge]

Technically Depth-of-field—is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image.

Don Rutledge

I have never met a photographer who understood more about packing more into a frame to tell a story than Don Rutledge.

The reason is it takes a lot more ability to take a photo of what appears to be clutter and compose it in such a way that you capture a story than it does to isolate by either getting closer or zooming in and isolating a subject.

What Don Rutledge taught me and yet I still haven’t begun to execute it as well as he did was to use the environment around the subject to provide context and tell a better story.

He taught me to spend time with a person before I take a photo of them. Spend time getting to know their story, this way once you know them you start to see things around them and their body language that help inform the audience through visual clues as to who the subject is as a person and how they interact with people in their world.

[Photo 2] While legislators around the nation were debating the need for rat-control laws–and disputing their funding–Don discovered these two youngsters who proudly displayed the results of their morning hunt. In that section of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1968, rats were not particularly difficult quarry to locate.

Don taught many photographers not to just watch the edges of the photograph but pay attention to the “Depth-of-field” when making the photograph. He wanted to use the thing in the foreground and background more than any other photographer I knew to help tell the story.

In Photo 1 you can see down the street and around the men as they walk down the street in Egypt. While most everyone is laughing as if a joke was just told—notice the woman just behind the men. Her expression tells another story.

I can picture this woman being similar to the woman in Matthew 9:20, “If I can just put a finger on his robe, I’ll get well.” Jesus turned—caught her at it.

She is not apart of the men’s group but has an interest in them.

In Photo 2 you see not just the rat being held by the boy but his friend and the place of their discovery. His friends body language adds so much to the context as does the alley where they found it.

[Photo 3] This is early morning in Mississippi for Luvenia and Bailey King. King sleeps as his wife puts breakfast on the table. [photo by Don Rutledge]

To get this type of “Depth-of-field” Don invested time with his subjects. In 1979 Don spent a month living with the King family in Mississippi. He added just enough money to the family budget to not add any financial stress on the family, but also not to change their living standards so he could cover what it was like living below the poverty line in America.

This photo [Photo 3] became a favorite photo of many from the story. The photo captures Bailey King and shows how thin he is and how hard his wife also worked to provide for the family. It is not a photo just about Bailey, but his wife as well Luvenia.

[Photo 4] Appalachian migrant family in Ohio during 1968. [photo by Don Rutledge]

Here in Photo 4 you can see a father who is obviously concerned and then you see his children in the background. The children are like all children and pull the viewer into the story of a migrant worker who will travel wherever finding work to provide for their family. Many photographers would crop just above the father’s head and left out the boy in the window. The reason is they most likely would not have seen the boy.

Don had a patience about him that let him truly be in the moment. He could see things that most missed. I think Don really and truly had more empathy for his subjects than just about any other photographer I have known.

[Photo 5] Africa—Sally Jones (white coat) felt emotions well up inside as she shared this moment with concerned mothers at the Southern Baptist feeding and health care center’s clinic in Ethiopia.

Many photographers might crop in much tighter on Sally Jones in Photo 5 here. Don goes wide and gets really close to be sure you see her expression. I remember often seeing the contact sheets of moments like this when Don was editing. He would show me the moment before and after where sometimes the lady in the background was only there for one of maybe 10 frames. She adds so much by helping pull you to the background after you have already seen Sally. There are more mothers outside is what this helps to convey.

[Photo 6] Israel—Missionary kid Sommer Hicks plays on the rocks of the sea of Galilee with her dad, Ray Hicks, in the background. [Don Rutledge]

So often photographers get so focused on the main subject they forget that those around the subject can sometimes give us insights into them. Here we get a glimpse of how normal life is for Ray Hicks in Photo 6 when we see how much fun his daughter is having at the sea of Galilee. Don shot it in a way to bring Ray into the photo and give a context that Don did so well time and time again.

Please take a look how often Don uses depth in his photos to tell stories. Here are two coverages of Russia that Don did in the 1980s. Don shot these for a magazine which would only use on average maybe 8 to 12 photos, but look at the true depth of his coverage. I remember seeing these coverages up on so many light tables and Dan Beatty commenting on how he could tell so many stories whenever Don returned.

Lisbon, Portugal Scene Setters

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 800, ƒ/9, 1.3 sec

Who, What, WHERE, Why, When & How

We teach in Journalism 101 the five Ws and H as the questions whose answers are considered essential in information-gathering. Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Last week while teaching Multi-Media Storytelling Workshop in Lisbon, Portugal, we covered getting images that help give context to their stories.

You can visually capture the Five Ws and Hs. Conveying a complex idea by a photojournalist with just a single still image is what the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” is all about. It also aptly characterizes one of the visualization’s main goals, allowing it to absorb large amounts of data quickly.

The power of a single image is why visual storytelling can be compelling. You can convey a lot of information to the audience in a short time.

While one image can capture “Where,” a series of photos in multimedia can do even more; depending on the sequence, some music and the human voice can pull you deeper into the story’s context.

Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 200, ƒ/13, 1/180

Here is a photo of Nazaré, Portugal, where I am at Sítio (an old village on top of a cliff) overlooking Praia (along the beach). This photo is an example of how you, as a tourist, give context. Shoot too tight, and you could be anywhere in the world. But don’t make that mistake; you could have stayed home and taken photos in your backyard.


Context photos are difficult when you use a shallow depth-of-field. Compare these two photos by changing the aperture to give a greater depth of field.

Fuji X-E2, 55-200mm, ISO 200, ƒ/3.7, 1/1000
Fuji X-E2, 55-200mm, ISO 640, ƒ/10, 1/500

Wide Angle Lens

I prefer to get close with a wide angle versus using a longer telephoto lens, but here in these photos, it does work.

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1/500

Remember when you travel, and you want to take establishing shots that capture where you were, not just photos you could have taken anywhere.

Composition Tips from world renowned photojournalist Don Rutledge

Don Rutledge took this in 1967 inside the Arctic Circle. People are so comfortable with Don that he can be a part of the woodwork.

The Eskimo family is my favorite photo that Don Rutledge took. I have enjoyed seeing the world’s approximately 150+ countries and all of the United States without ever leaving my home. Don was traveling primarily with The Commission Magazine and Missions USA. Both magazines have won some of the highest awards in the country. The Commission Magazine placed third in the “Pictures of The Year” contest sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association in 1989 and 1990. CommissionStories, a newer version of the magazine, just won as a Finalist for the Magazine division of the Pictures of the Year contest behind National Geographic Magazine for 2014. Missions USA has earned similar awards. These Southern Baptist magazines are in league with National Geographic and Life Magazine for their photography and design.

Don Rutledge’s influence was the reason for their success. Before working for these religious magazines, Don was one of the staff photographers for the elite photography agency Black Star. From the 1950s until the 1980s, if you were to look for the photographers’ credits in the major magazines, you would find Black Star, the agency that handled publishing their work.

The shoeshine man had to be told by Don that John Howard Griffin was white and not black. He could hardly believe that this man was white. [by Don Rutledge]

One of the biggest news stories Don covered was following and documenting John Howard Griffin, who transformed himself with drugs and makeup from a white man into a black man. In the book Black Like Me, he would later write about his experience as a black man.

“Don discovered these two youngsters who proudly displayed the results of their morning hunt. In that section of Cincinnati, rats were not particularly difficult to locate.” [Walker Knight, See How Love Works]

Don’s story is a series of stories. Using the storytelling model I introduced in the last blog, here is a short story about Don.

Don Rutledge knew he loved to take photos and looked and noticed the Black Star agency in all the magazines. He wanted to learn more and work for them. So he contacted Howard Chapnick, the president of Black Star.

Howard asked for a portfolio, but Don didn’t have one. So Don pitched story ideas that Howard liked. Howard pitched these to his clients and told Don one was interested. Unfortunately, before Howard had a deal, Don had already shot the story and sent it to Howard.

Howard wrote back and told Don his mistake and also told him what was wrong or missing from that coverage. So Don went ahead and went back and filled in those holes in the story and sent it to Black Star.

The client loved the package and requested Don for more coverage.

Volunteer Mike Edens taught these two pastors, Mikhail Shehata Ghaly and Anwar Dakdouk, MasterLife Discipleship training in Cyprus in 1984. [photo by Don Rutledge]

When I got to work with Don, I jumped at it. Working with Don was the Luke Skywalker and Yoda opportunity for me.

Within the Frame

One of the lessons I learned from Don was to scan the edges of the frame. Then, make the most of the entire structure from edge to trim and front to back.

If you look at the photos I have posted so far of Don’s, pay attention to two things: First, how the edges include details and do not make sloppy by cutting off legs or other items in the frame. Second, see how much layering is from front to back in all these photos.

Do you see all six people in the first photo of the Eskimo family? Notice how these are all over, and Don has introduced the family, the social status, and where they live in that one photo. He also captured the excitement and happiness that they experienced.

Take each photo and notice the edges and how people anchor the images. He pointed out, including their feet, but not too much. I was learning how to place people in context with the environment. The environment tells you a little about the people. Their expressions of them show how much they love life.

Notice that had Don cropped in tighter to the shoeshine man and Howard Griffin, you would not know he was a shoeshine man. It would help if you had the shoe polish and the footrest to help tell the story.

In all these photos, there is also just a little tension. Each image has the reader asking some questions. The pictures make you want to know more about each situation.

In the Philippines, families cluster together for meals. [photo by Don Rutledge]

One trick Don often used was just including a sliver of light to see beyond the initial scene. With the Eskimo family, it is the tundra to the right. With the family in the Philippines, the door and the floor give you a sense that there is stuff beyond them. In the photo of the men walking in Cyprus, you can see the man walking away beyond them.

Notice in all these photos, you have a sense of a problem facing the characters. The boy holding the rat is probably the most obvious, but you can feel the tension each time. However, you can also sense a victory over their situations.

Surgeon Tim Pennell got five of his colleagues from Bowman Gray School of Medicine to commit weeks of vacation time and thousands of dollars to meet their Chinese counterparts. [photo by Don Rutledge]

Editors and presidents of organizations sought out Don to help tell their stories. They saw in Don’s photos more than just a good photo—they saw that Don was capturing the inner souls of people in ways others just didn’t.

Don captured moments. President of the Foreign Mission Board Keith Parks said,

Although Don took hundreds of pictures, I hardly noticed because he did it in such an unobtrusive way.  When he put it all together he had really caught the highlights of the meeting and the impact that he wanted.  I just think that he is a first rate fellow from every measurement professional.  Of course, he can and does meet the highest standards of the secular world, and yet his deep spiritual commitment has caused him to give himself to the spiritual cause he believes rather than selling his skills to the highest bidder.  I just think that quality and character come through in his pictures.

Dan Beatty, the design editor of The Commission Magazine, commented,

Don is the one person who has completely influenced the direction of the magazine. Before Don came we knew that there was a certain way we wanted to present the missions material in the magazine.  None of us had a firm grasp on what direction we should go to achieve our goals.  Don really provided the direction for us to go.  Don never expressed any strong feelings about—in a critique type way—on the magazine.  Just Don’s presence and constant example of someone who always strives for the best is what guided us along. He was constantly putting us into contact with different individuals in the field of photojournalism and layout and design.  He felt these would be good influences on the magazine or influences that would help us along the road where we wanted to be with the publication.

I would not be doing what I am doing, at the level I am doing it if it hadn’t been for Don. He is an example of consistency and integrity in a field where that is not always a constant with the different people that I’ve met.  He represented something that I wanted to achieve myself.  He has been the biggest influence that I can think of on me personally and the different photographers that I have worked with along with Don.  The thing that impressed me most with Don is his sensitivity and his regard for human beings.  I think that is what made him the asset that Dr. Parks was looking for in communicating about Foreign Missions to Southern Baptist and other people as well.  The dignity of the human being no matter what the situation is so very important to Don.  To me that is the real strength of Don’s work.


Don Rutledge spent his career photographing more than 150 countries and all 50 states. He was published almost every single month of his career in magazines. Few photojournalists were more published regularly in magazines than Don. He died on February 19, 2013, at the age of 82.


Storyline involves a Plot

Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/3.6, 1/250, custom white balance with ExpoDisc

A plot “ensures that you get your character from point A to point Z.”

The shooting of the story is often not in the order of telling the story. It is standard in Hollywood when they are making a movie to shoot a story all out of order for budget reasons.

You may need to go ahead and shoot the ending because it takes place in the spring, and you are now in the Spring time.

Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/9, 1/45, custom white balance with ExpoDisc

Yesterday I was working with my intern/photo assistant. I sat down for a few minutes to talk about what I was doing and why. He is going to Lisbon, Portugal, with me and will be shooting his own visual story.

One thing I talked to him about was how every situation I shot was as if it were a stand-alone story.

Fujifilm X-E2, Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.4 D AF, using Nikon G to FX adapter, ISO 500, ƒ/1.4, 1/60

Yesterday I photographed a Georgia Tech Management student. I followed him around for the day. While in the classroom with him, I photographed each situation as if the whole story had to come out. I was shooting stills and videos. I shot an overall shot of the classroom, some of the teacher and some of the students, and everything else you could think of in between.

Nikon D4, Nikon 85mm ƒ/1.4 D AF, ISO 1100, ƒ/1.4, 1/250 Custom white balance with the ExpoDisc

I shot each situation as if it were a stand-alone package because it is easier to sequence the overall package with the best photos to tell the complete story.

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 12800, ƒ/6.3, 1/500, custom white balance with ExpoDisc

If you didn’t shoot the variety, you might end up with all close-up shots when you finally were editing. Then the array of the photo starts to work against you by shooting to get good tight, medium, and overall pictures and varieties of each of those; you then are picking from each situation and then putting these into a sequence that moves the viewer through the plot of events to tell the story.

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 8000, ƒ/4.8, 1/250, custom white balance with ExpoDisc

Unlike fiction writers who can create their content, the visual storyteller who captures the story must grasp it before it is sequenced and told. The writer can design and make it work and not worry if they have images to move you through the plot. They create it.

Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 400, ƒ/10, 1/500

I even did the environmental portrait as a safe shot of the student in front of the Georgia Institute of Technology sign.

During our interview with the subject, he mentioned that he would be working with Wells Fargo Securities this coming summer. So just to have something we could drop in for a visual, we found a sign to put him in front of for the story.

Fujifilm X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 200, ƒ/10, 1/180 and -1 EV on the pop-up flash

The bottom line is that you need to have a storyline in mind while shooting. Then for each point of the outline, you shoot it like it will be the complete story. Then, you create another sub-outline of the design that makes this a full report.

It is almost impossible to overshoot for a visual storyteller. Those who undershoot will have to rely on other communication like text or audio to help tell the story.

The best way to tell a story is to show the audience rather than say it to the audience. Don’t be caught without enough visuals when putting the final package together.

Storytelling Involves Characters

Here is one way to introduce a character running straight at the audience.

The show, don’t tell.

When introducing your character, sharing an experience of the essence with the audience is essential. With the football players, this is an easier way to introduce a character into the story. But, again, the action helps to tell us about the character.

Student Omar Yougbare in Koudougou, Burkina Faso.

While this might be a lovely portrait of the story’s character, you can see that because the man is just looking at the camera, it does little to tell the audience about the man. So now the story must rely more heavily on the storyteller’s telling rather than showing to introduce the character.

Paul Tiendeno is a student at the theology school in Koudougou, Burkina Faso. They teach theology and farming to help the pastors feed their families while they minister as bi-vocational pastors. 

Contrast the photo of the man just looking into the camera lens with this one, which shows the man working in the field and tending his crops.

Which photo helps to establish the characteristics of the person?

Just Coffee Cooperative

Here is the matriarch of her family pouring hot water over coffee grinds to make coffee. Showing her working in her kitchen is an excellent way to introduce the mother and wife of coffee farmers in my story on a coffee cooperative.

Just Coffee Coop in El Aguila Adan Roblero

The theme of the story I was working on about a coffee cooperative is how the cooperative’s success depends on the coffee drinkers getting to know their coffee growers. One of the Arizona coffee drinkers plays with a coffee farmer’s son in El Aguila, Chiapas, Mexico. Here, I am telling a small story within the photo, introducing the character into the storyline.

Doug Parkin, a volunteer pediatrician from Arizona, sees patients during his two-month service at the Baptist Medical Center in Nalerigu, Ghana. (Photo by: Stanley Leary)

Here is a doctor who donates some vacation time to serve in the Baptist Medical Centre in Nalerigu, Ghana. The story tried recruiting doctors to become full-time missionaries in this hospital. Unfortunately, when I visited, they had only two doctors.

Surgeon Danny Crawley is in theatre doing a hernia operation, and Comfort Bawa, the theatre assistant, helps him at the Baptist Medical Centre in Nalerigu, Ghana. (Photo by: Stanley Leary)

Danny Crawford is one of those two doctors and the only surgeon. So, this was a way to introduce him into the storyline.

Just Coffee Cooperative

Pushing the boy is one of the coffee farmers with his grandson in Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, Mexico. I think this is a great way to introduce the coffee farmer and show the value of family to the people of the coffee cooperative.

Recording artist Soulja Boy poses for a portrait at his Atlanta Buckhead Penthouse on Thursday, April 23, 2009.

While you may have a lovely portrait of a person like this, a shot of Soulja Boy does little to introduce the character compared to if he was doing something.

Just Coffee Cooperative

The people can even have beautiful smiles, but you still know little about the characters when you have them stop and look at the camera.

Kalyn Wood

The portraits can be pretty powerful, but they are not the same as introducing the character when they are doing something. So yes, they can be powerful images that capture your attention, but what is the story?

State and Lake In-Line Rob Meier, Operator

Don’t you think this photo of the two guys competing on who can move the Oreo Cookie from their forehead to eat is a much more exciting and character-revealing photo to introduce a character?

The Archbishop of Atlanta, His Excellency The Most Reverend Wilton Daniel Gregory, S.L.D., presides over the Eucharist during The Mass of Canonical Installation of His Excellency The Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory, S.L.D. at the Georgia International Convention Center in Atlanta, Georgia on January 17, 2005.

This moment during the celebration of the Eucharist in Mass is a great way to introduce Archbishop Gregory into the storyline.

Clayton State University Campus Scenics

Only as a last resort should you use the posed portrait to introduce your character. Let the visuals tell the story—SHOW, don’t TELL!

Storytelling involves conflict

My last post was on the elements of the story. This is just on one of those elements: CONFLICT.Here are some tips on capturing that for the visual storyteller.

Conflict—The major problem of the story

There are two categories

  1. External—Happens outside the character, involves more than 1 person, can be observed
  2. Internal—Happens inside of the character, involves only 1 person, can only be observed in the thoughts and feelings
Three types of conflict
  1. Man vs Nature [External]
  2. Man vs Self [Internal]
  3. Man vs Man [External or Internal]
Looking at the photos can you decide which of the types of conflict they are communicating?

Using the visual to create conflict is what a visual storyteller does to help move the audience into and through the storyline.

Breaking composition Rules

Breaking the rules of composition to help create even more tension is one way photojournalists help you feel the conflict of a news event like this one of the car wreck.

Natural Barriers

Sometimes you can just photograph using the natural environment to help create a tension. I use this a lot.

Body Language

Now just how the subject looks and carries themselves can help with establishing the conflict necessary in the storyline.

It isn’t always over the top and hitting you with a hammer, often the body language is more subtle.

Here it is just the eyes of the child who is suffering from Malaria that grab you.


Sports are great for where you can see conflict.

You can show the offense and defense in one photo.


Just the grimace of a person can introduce some tension into a moment and make you want to know more about the situation.

Have you been in school wondering what is going on or just struggling?

Don’t shy away from the photos with tension, they are needed in the storyline.

Not all photos are about a place of peace and calm. Stories require a conflict—are you capturing it? If you are not then are you telling stories?

Visual Storytellers: The elements they use to tell a story

To help with the conflict portion of the plot for my story on coffee growers in Mexico, I had to talk about the immigration issue. Why did coffee farmers risk illegally crossing the border before they formed a coffee cooperative? I think this photo with the border patrol is one way to help establish the conflict.
Elements of the Story
Storytelling has five main elements of a story: setting, plot, characters, conflict, and theme. Whether you’re studying a short story, a novel, an epic poem, a play o,r a film, if you don’t find these five elements, you’re not looking hard enough.
This photo is of a group of illegal immigrants on their journey with a coyote on the Mexican side of the border, hiding from the border patrol before they break across the border. I ran into them while trying to find images to talk about the border. This photo shows one way to show the characters of a story.
The setting is the place for the story.
The plot is the action, the quest for satisfaction, what’s going down, and what’s going to happen. It is a series of events. Every story is a series of events. So the way you order these to create an account is called the plot.
The characters are the people in the story who act. All the characters in a story have a history and details about their pasts that are important to understand their personality and present lives. The audience must know some of these details to understand the story. These details are called the exposition. Explaining the characters of a story are early in the story. Often this is the first part of the plot.
Conflict is that something has gone wrong! Conflict happens when characters are against each other, like teams in a game or two groups fighting on the playground. 
The resolution of the conflict is the story’s climax, the plot.
A theme is the hardest to get out of the five main elements of a story. That’s because a story’s main idea or message is usually something abstract. And authors rarely come out and state the main message. Instead, they imply the theme through the other elements of the story. Themes usually explore timeless and universal ideas.

This photo could be a scene setter for the story on the coffee cooperative. The red beans are arabica coffee is grown in Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, Mexico.
Fill in the blanks
Take each of those elements and identify what those are in your story before you start to shoot. Even in breaking news, you need to understand these elements. Many great photojournalists do this instinctively because great storytellers quickly find the storyline.
Create an outline
With the experience of storytelling, you may no longer create an outline that you reference formally, but starting this is the best way to ensure that when you get ready to put the package together, you are not missing an element crucial to the story.
Luis “Pelayo” Diaz is a coffee grower and one of the founders of Just Coffee. Today his son is studying to be a Dentist, which was made possible through the coffee cooperative.
Here is a list of some shots you will use to help tell your story.
  1. Opener: Sets the scene for the story 
  2. Decisive moment: The one moment that can by itself tell the story
  3. Details:  Besides being like visual candy to the report, help often with transitions–especially in multimedia packages
  4. Sequences: give a little variety to a situation
  5. High overall shot: Gives a good perspective on how the elements all fit together
  6. Closer: Besides the classic shot of the cowboy riding off into the sunset, there are other visual ways to help bring the story to a close
  7. Portraits: These photos are great for introducing the characters of the story
It is easier to start with knowing the different elements and having an outline before you begin shooting your story. But, it will also change from what you started—because things change.
All these people are waiting to see one doctor in Ghana. So my story was to help tell the story of the need for doctors, and hopefully, through the telling of the story, some doctors would feel the call to go and work at this hospital.
I kept the audience broad when I was telling the cooperative coffee story. I could have easily just targeted the Presbyterian Church and given money to support the missionary who was instrumental in funding the cooperative. I could have also targeted the Catholic Church because they had a role in starting the cooperative.
I kept it broad enough, yet I had those audiences in mind. I told the story to those concerned about immigration and looking for a solution. The story was to establish the conflict of illegal immigration, with the resolution being cooperative. 
So many patients are on the floor of the patient wing of the hospital. If you look closely, some of those beds have two patients on one bed. I wanted to help show the “conflict” of the story.
I have worked on stories for mission organizations many times through the years. The goal of those stories was to get the audience to Give; Go, or Pray for missions. 
Even in sports, there is a story. Here is one photo you see the conflict. You have offense and defense battling, and the story’s climax is where the hero slams the basket past the defender.
Can you look at your photos and find storytelling elements? Are you thinking about the story elements when you are shooting?
How can you tell a story if you do not understand what makes up a story? Hopefully, this will point you in the right direction on your next project.

Why I changed my title from Photojournalist to Storyteller

Definition of Photojournalist

Photojournalism is a particular form of journalism (the collecting, editing, and presenting of news material for publication or broadcast) that creates images in order to tell a news story. It is now usually understood to refer only to still images, but in some cases the term also refers to video used in broadcast journalism. Photojournalism is distinguished from other close branches of photography (e.g., documentary photography, social documentary photography, street photography or celebrity photography) by complying with a rigid ethical framework which demands that the work is both honest and impartial whilst telling the story in strictly journalistic terms. Photojournalists create pictures that contribute to the news media.


Photojournalism: the job or activity of using photographs to report news stories in magazines or newspapers


This photo is from the East Carolina Buccaneer (college yearbook) 1984. That is me on the left. I was the darkroom manager back then. The other photographers are Mark Barber and Mike Smith in the top middle photo, and Gary Patterson, head photographer, center bottom and to the right Neil Johnson.

We all shot for the school newspaper and the yearbook as “photojournalists.”

Stanley Leary is photographing in the village of Garango, Burkina Faso. (Photo By: Shawn Hendricks)

Here I am, shooting in 2005 in Burkina Faso, and I still consider my work to be as a photojournalist. I was shooting for a Christian organization showing their work. It was to be used in materials for a fundraising program they did every year.

The choice of words you use to communicate can make all the difference in the world.

“Language shapes our behavior and each word we use is imbued with multitudes of personal meaning. The right words spoken in the right way can bring us love, money and respect, while the wrong words—or even the right words spoken in the wrong way—can lead to a country to war. We must carefully orchestrate our speech if we want to achieve our goals and bring our dreams to fruition.”

—Dr. Andrew Newberg, Words Can Change Your Brain

Client-Centered Communication vs. Self Centered 

If people find out I went to seminary, they want to know what church I pastored or where I pastored. So you see, there are assumptions made by the words I use with the audience.

Writers have always known that the right word can evoke so much more than just any synonym would do.

According to Compton’s Encyclopedia, the English language contains some 500,000 words. Yet the average person’s working vocabulary consists of 2,000. And the number of words we use most frequently that make up our habitual vocabulary? For most people, it averages 200-300 words.

According to Oxford University and the PBS series ‘The History of English’:

William Shakespeare used a total vocabulary of just over 24,000 words. In 2003 16,000 of those words were “obsolete.”

Edgar Allen Poe used a total vocabulary of under 18,000 words. In 2003 9,550 of those words were “obsolete.”

Is the word photojournalist obsolete? No, but if you are trying to communicate your value to a client, using this word can create a hurdle or obstacle.

While you may see yourself as a photojournalist and understand fully what that means and that it doesn’t mean you work at a newspaper but rather the approach you take, that is great and maybe even 100% accurate.

Now take in your audience, who you are trying to convince you are the person to help them tell their story.

I have started to use the descriptor Storyteller because this explains what I do, and clients can see the need for a Storyteller much faster than they can see the need for a photojournalist.

Another term similar to the Storyteller that you might like is Narrative.

Humanitarian Photographer

For me, the descriptor “Humanitarian Photographer” is too limiting. This tends to describe one as working with NGOs and nonprofits. While a corporation might look for a “Humanitarian Photographer” if they are trying to brand themselves as compassionate and that they give back, it is most likely not what they are going to look for when they need to tell the story of their product and how it is transforming people’s lives.

Examples of photojournalists not working.

I am a member of Christians in Photojournalism. When people write to join, many in the past have asked what newspaper they work for today. It would be best if you worked for a newspaper to be a photojournalist or part of our organization.

As many members have lost their jobs with newspapers, their identity as a photojournalist didn’t change. So they are still doing in their minds photojournalism for mission groups, NGOs, and even the corporate world, but telling accurate and truthful stories.

When I talk to people who do storytelling about Christians in Photojournalism, you can tell many have a look on their faces that I don’t work for a newspaper.

For the past 20 years, I have helped staff the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference. Some attendees get very upset if the speakers are not working for a news organization. Some speakers have shared how they are helping pay their bills by doing photojournalistic weddings.

What we call the “Day In the Life” photo story is how many former photojournalists see themselves doing by covering weddings. Many have gone on to help protect water projects or other things like Habitat for Humanity worldwide and show this as their “photojournalism.”

The disconnect in both of these examples is those who could participate do not see themselves as photojournalists. Instead, the title to them means news organization photographer–not a storyteller in the broader sense.

Don’t become Obsolete.

If I continue to use the term photojournalist to describe myself, I will soon become obsolete because the word is not used the same with my audience as I use it.

Everyone, not just photojournalists, must be less self-centered and client-centered to avoid becoming obsolete. What words in your client’s vocabulary best describe you?

The power of made-up words cannot be underestimated either. My friends Dave Black and Zack Arias are great examples of creating new words. Dave talks about “silhouette reveal” verses “fill-flash.” Zack often makes up words for pieces of equipment in his demonstrations. Then he will say if you call up B&H and ask for a Big Bertha, you might not get what he was using.

Remember you are trying to connect with your audience to get hired. So figure out their vocabulary to help them quickly understand your gifts and talents.