Before you tell a story you have to find the story

[Nikon D5, 85mm ƒ/1.8, ISO 4500, ƒ/4, 1/100]

This is Amar, and his father is the Imam in a Mosque we visited in the Balkans. This is all part of our Storytellers Abroad Multimedia Workshop that I am helping lead in the Balkans, which is part of Eastern Europe.

[Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 400, ƒ/8, 1/240]

This is our Storytellers Abroad Multimedia Workshop of 12 participants, four instructors, and one administrative staff.

We are finding stories where global workers are helping through education the people of the Balkans.

Hopefully, next week I can show you some of the finished projects.

[Fuji X-E2, 55-200mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/5, 1/80]

Each day we have a couple of hours of class time teaching some of the basics the students need to do before they go out.

Pat Davison, one of the instructors, is talking to the workshop participants about how to conduct a pre-interview where you find the storyline that will later help you with the questions that will make up the video interview.

[Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 800, ƒ/5, 1/100]

James Dockery is one of the other instructors in our Storytellers Abroad Multimedia Workshop that we are doing in the Balkans. James was photographing the kids, and I was off to the side and pulled my camera up, and they all quickly posed.

No matter where we go, we have our cameras and are learning about the culture. Children quickly run to be in the photos and let us get to know them.

[Nikon D5, Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 1250, ƒ/1.4, 1/100]

We walked to the square in the town at night, and everyone was out socializing and drinking their macchiatos.

[Nikon D5, Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 100, ƒ/1.4, 1/400]

This is the Macchiato I was drinking at an Italian restaurant in the Balkans. A Caffé Macchiato or Espresso Macchiato is a shot or two of espresso, with just a small amount of steamed milk that “marks” the espresso, though in some regions, the steamed milk comes first, and the espresso makes the mark.

This is a photo from last year’s workshop in Togo, West Africa. This is what I will demonstrate this morning for the class. I will be showing them how to conduct an interview where they have a subject and a translator.

The very first night we were in the Balkans, we sat down and explained how they were to spend time getting to know their subject the next day. They were to develop a list of questions to help tell their subject’s story.

Today they will conduct those formal interviews, which will be the storyline for the multimedia package.

Stay tuned for more experiences from the Storytellers Abroad Workshop in the Balkans this week and next week.

Mr. Robot appeals to the cerebral audience–Especially visually

Fujifilm X-E2, Fuji XF 18-55mm, ISO 400, ƒ/2.8, 1/125

Rami Malek picked up the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for his role in “Mr. Robot.” Malek had the perfect Elliot line to deliver: “Please tell me you’re seeing this too.”

“I play a young man who is, like so many of us, profoundly alienated,” Malek said, which lives with social anxiety disorder and clinical depression in the show. “And the unfortunate thing is I’m not sure how many of us would want to hang out with a guy like Elliot.

“But I want to honor the Elliots cause there’s a little bit of Elliot in all of us.” Todd Campbell, the director of photography for Mr. Robot, helps make the show visually cerebral. This approach helps to connect the show to the nerds. For a writer’s concept to truly connect with cinema, a director of photography helps to bring out the writer’s moods and tone through the visual. The cinema-photography is writing with light to compliment the words to bring the audience along with the storylines.

Fujifilm X-E2, Fuji XF 18-55mm, ISO 500, ƒ/3.2, 1/60

Campbell’s use of the negative space helps to make the audience’s eyes wander through the scene. By not using a lot of movement in a shot, the audience has time to ponder the scene.

Fujifilm X-E2, Fuji XF 18-55mm, ISO 800, ƒ/3.6, 1/60

Most movies today have more than 50% of the scenes being close-up shots. This technique makes you wonder what is outside the frame to engage the audience.

Fujifilm X-E2, Fuji XF 18-55mm, ISO 400, ƒ/2.8, 1/60

When you go close, you wonder what is beyond the frame.

Fujifilm X-E2, Fuji XF 18-55mm, ISO 400, ƒ/2.8, 1/60

You see what is going on going much broader, but your eye wonders much more. In this process, you start to write your visual narrative even more. For me, this is a much more cerebral exercise for the audience, and if you pause long enough on your visuals, the audience will start to take it in. Here is the trailer for Mr. Robot.

To appeal to the nerds and deep thinkers, you have to give them the content that allows their brains to engage and process the content. Mr. Robot does this not just with the storyline, but the visuals help genuinely engage the audience in a way rarely done within cinema today.

Maybe the most significant reason Mr. Robot is such a big hit is that it is unconventional. By being different, the show’s creators appear to be revolutionary. For me, it is a style I grew up in magazine photojournalism.

To me, Mr. Robot proves that the audience is not just ready for much deeper storylines but craving them. They are tired of the quick sound bite and the simplistic close-up visuals. Instead, people enjoy thinking to keep up with the storyline.

Start with the Audience

Fujifilm X-E2, FUJINON XF 18-55mm, 

Have you ever seen the acronym WIIFM? It stands for What’s In It For Me. It is the essential part of telling a story. But, first, you must understand who the audience is to craft a story that will appeal to their desires.

What’s In It For Me, are without a doubt, the most important five letters in your business writing, your Web site, and maybe even in your business success. Always tell people what’s in it for them when they do business with you.

You will likely appeal to no one if you try to reach everyone.
Nikon D5, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 32000, ƒ/9, 1/100
Think of you talking one-on-one with someone in your audience. It would help to have the audience in mind before picking the story.
For there to be a story, we have these basic four things:
  1. Subject 
  2. They WANT something
  3. They overcome obstacles
  4. To get it
The audience wants something too. The audience wants to be part of the story. The audience in a call to action can be the helper for the subject to attain their wants.
When I am teaching Missions Multimedia Storytelling Workshop, the hardest part of the learning for the student, which is their obstacle, has less to do about learning to use the gear. Instead, the real struggle is understanding the storyline.
They must toss out so much because it isn’t engaging the audience. 
I get the deer in the headlights looking over and over from students when they show me their work, and I ask why I should care.
They are crafting a story they are interested in, not one for the audience.
In the hero’s journey storytelling model discovered by Joseph Campbell and modified by Chris Vogler, there is a meeting of the mentor usually in Act 1. The mentor can be the role of the audience when it comes to the call to action for helping the subject attain their goal.
A good storyteller understands that the Audience, Subject, and even you as a storyteller all have a storyline. The key to the success story is when the Audience, Subject, and even you as a storyteller are all able to get what they want.
If your story seems stuck, check and see which of the storylines [Audience, Subject, Storyteller] is having problems.
One of the key things to evaluate is constantly asking how this helps us achieve our WANTS/GOAL if it doesn’t look at cutting it out.

Summary of my teaching points I had for Lisbon Multimedia Workshop

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

I returned from Lisbon, Portugal, a week ago, where I was teaching a Storytelling Workshop with Jeff Raymond of ABWE and James Dockery, coordinating editor for ESPN.

I taught the students the elements of a storyline, which they then used as they interviewed their subjects.

I have written a blog on the storyline and broken down each component if you want to know more about it here.

You can then break down this storyline into a shot list, which all the students worked on to put together their multimedia package.

  • Opener: Sets the scene for the story
  • Decisive moment: The one moment that can by itself tell the story
  • Details: Besides being like visual candy to the report, help often with transitions–especially in multimedia packages
  • Sequences: give a little variety to a situation
  • High overall shot: Gives a good perspective on how the elements all fit together.
  • 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
  • Portraits: These photos are great for introducing the characters of the story

Before they even started, we had them tell us who the audience was for the story. We want the students to reach into the audience and pull on the experiences of that “specific” audience.


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.

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 12800, ƒ/2.8, 1/50

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. 

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. 

Who, What, Where, Why, When & How

In Journalism 101, we teach 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.”

Before the formal interview, the storyteller interviewed each subject to gather and determine the story. If you didn’t do this, you would be editing your project forever.


B-roll is the supplemental or alternative footage intercut with the main shot in an interview. For example, people generally do not sit and watch a person talking in a video for very long. To prevent just talking heads is why you shoot a lot of B-rolls so you can show this while the subject is speaking.

Our students quickly discovered the story needed to revolve around the now and not the past or future, or you couldn’t shoot much B-roll. 

Here is a photo of me interviewing in Lisbon.

photo by Jeff Raymond

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PhotogenX DTS

I am teaching another Visual Storytelling Workshop in Kona, Hawaii, in a couple of weeks. I will teach students Visual Storytelling before they head out for coverage worldwide: an orphanage in Cambodia, poor in India, working with prostitutes in Thailand; and finally, scope on the street children in the Philippines. Go here to read more about the program.

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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.

Is your life as a photographer a good story? Here is how to make it better.

To be the subject of a compelling story requires calling the issue to a task outside their comfort zone. Yet, it is necessary for the subject’s survival and the benefit of others.

Donald Miller is a best-selling American author and public speaker based in Portland, Oregon. He writes a great deal about storylines on his blog here Miller says that a story is a sense-making device. A good story brings about clarity, whereas our everyday lives seem disjointed.

Miller uses the parallel of music and how it parallels the story. Sounds are just noise until putting they into a form. That form transforms the noise into a piece. A storyline is no different for Miller. The author has put together a series of events to be told through a set form.

Here is the basic formula that Miller uses to tell many stories and movies like the Hunger Games and Star Wars.

The first thing that takes place for a character in a story is a conflict must happen, or you will lose the audience.

Not starting quickly with a conflict is a sure sign of a boring story when you are just enjoying your life and doing everything to keep some normalcy in your life.

Here in this sports photo of a quarterback being pursued by what looks like most of the defense and no one between them, you have all the makings of the story, minus the ending. The character has a problem with getting tackled. He has trained in practice and with the coaching staff to prepare for this moment. All are implying this with the school team uniform. The task is simple to move the ball forward to keep the ball for your team or make a touchdown. The outcome is either a comedy or tragedy.

Here is John Howard Griffin transformed into a black man while he was doing the research for his book Black Like Me. Sitting beside Griffin is the photographer Don Rutledge who followed him, documenting his trials as a black man in the south. Don and John traveled in 1956 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

John Howard Griffin is walking down the street in New Orleans.

The two of them traveling together through the deep south for the book was extremely dangerous. Paul Guihard was a French journalist covering the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1960s. He was murdered in rioting at the University of Mississippi in Oxford campus after James Meredith attempted to enroll at the all-white school. He was shot in the back at almost point-blank range by an unknown assailant near the Lyceum building. Guihard’s case was closed without success and never re-investigated. In his last dispatch made the very same day, he wrote, “The Civil War has never ended.”

Just taking on this project was a story in itself. Not only was Griffin a character in the story, but Don Rutledge was also transforming through the coverage.

I remember Don trying out new camera systems that would stretch him to learn the new system, which extended his photography. He was always putting himself in new situations to capture unique stories. By the end of his career, he had traveled to more than 150+ countries.


Some of the best stories are not the ones that are the big hit in New York Times best books or the blockbusters in Hollywood. Instead, the best stories are the ones that one tells clearly.

You see, our lives are like run-on sentences. What we do throughout our days is often not an excellent sequence for a story. It is pretty disjointed.

A great story starts by establishing the story’s hero and the problem they face in the future.

The best way to grow is to get out of your comfort zone.

I am not qualified

Too often, you will turn down great opportunities because you feel ill-equipped. Hey, that is the problem facing Luke Skywalker. He will go off and meet Yoda to train and have him help him with a game plan.

I bought this Dodge Viper model for $12 and then spent time lighting an all-black car to make it enjoyable. This was my way of challenging myself for a day in the studio.

Find a problem

Step One—The first thing to grow as a photographer is to find a problem. Maybe it is a complex story or getting a photo of something from an angle no one has done before. Whatever it is, you need to have a problem you need to tackle.

Step Two—Find a guide to help you find resources through reading, videos, or maybe find someone who can teach you. Most likely, the direction you look to will be someone who has been there and done that.

Step Three—Make an action plan on how you will go forward to deal with your problem.

Step Four—Take action. Don’t procrastinate. Go and get your feet wet.

Step Five—Evaluate yourself. Was this a comedy or tragedy? It is a good story either way, and you will learn something from it that will equip you to go forward.