Seven Images that Inspire Visual Storytelling

I have always been a visual storyteller. As a young kid, I can remember watching films and TV shows and analyzing the shot composition, the focal point, and the lighting. I wasn’t just excited about the technical aspects of the image but found myself drawn to the story the idea was conveying.

I’ll never forget my first lesson on visual storytelling. As an 18 year old, I applied for a job I wasn’t qualified for, a TV news photographer at a news station in Providence, Rhode Island. I sent a demo reel to the chief photographer, and my cover letter mentioned my inexperience, and that I wasn’t fit for the job, but wanted a critique session.

He invited me in, and we watched my reel.  For an hour, he tore me to shreds. Then he showed me his reel, and I quickly realized that while my shots were beautiful and technically sufficient, they lacked the human link to visual storytelling. His advice still resonates with me 17 years later.

“Look for the one image that conveys the entire story. Then shoot it. Reshoot it. Shoot it until you get it right.”

Greg Monte, Chief Photographer WPRI-TV, Providence 2005

Visual Storytelling Transformation

I became transfixed with seeking images that uniquely told stories. I was no longer interested in beautiful photos, but imagery that connected to the soul. Many images helped me develop my personal aesthetic, and I’d like to break down seven images that inspire me to become a more robust visual storyteller.

The following images focus on promoting a story thorugh film, photography, illustration, and propaganda. They also are both created with technial considerations, and display characters that tug at the heart string of viewers.

Binary Sunset: Star Wars

Binary Sunset- Star Wars: A New Hope- Director: George Lucas

The film offers the unique ability to construct a visual story with a sequence of images weaved together. When edited together, these shots create the Kuleshov Effect, allowing users to connect imagery that aids in visual storytelling. Lev Kuleshov used film to develop early Russian propaganda to influence Russian’s understanding of war.

Simply put, the Kuleshov Effect creates an algebraic formula for users. Shot 1+Shot 2+Shot 3= Visual Story. 

In this scene, with just a few shots, the entire scene connects with the emotions of the character. The sequence features an isolated Luke Skywalker in a wide shot, peering off into the setting sun.

Next, a series of close-up shots introduce Luke looking longingly and followed by a close-up of the suns. These types of close-up shots inform the audience of necessary details in a film.

As Luke Skywalker peers off into the setting sun of Tatooine, he realizes that everything that has lead him up to this point is insignificant and is trying to prepare himself for the unknown journey ahead mentally. He introspectively questions his strength and his capability to be successful. 

This shot gives me chills every time I see it.  I cannot help but well up with tears and emotion when seeing this shot. This image speaks to me, and I can even relate to Luke Skywalker. Before embarking on an unknown journey of parenthood. My wife and I visited Gooseberry Beach in Westport, Massachusetts, the weekend before our son was born. Coincidentally, We stared off into the sunset, wondering if we have the strength to become parents. 

The sunset at Gooseberry Island, Westport, Massachusetts

Lord of the Rings

I’m a sucker for dramatic monologues and hopeful optimism.  This film sequence tugs at viewers’ heartstrings, as Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, reflect on their trials and tribulations midway through their journey to destroy the Ring of Power.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers-Director: Peter Jackson

The sequence does many things right, but the essential aspect of visual storytelling is that it makes the viewers relate to a genuine feeling. Everyone at one point in their life has felt exhausted, overwhelmed, and unsure if they can continue on their quest. If you’re lucky, hopefully, you’ve had someone push you along and remind you that “you’ve got this!”

What I admire most about this sequence is Samwise’s optimism. The team just got attacked, many people lost their lives, the ring turned on Frodo, forcing him to kill his best friend nearly, and all seems lost. As Samwise reflects on the destruction, he reminds Frodo, “There is some good worth fighting for.” 

The scene demonstrates how color theory can impact visual storytelling. The setting is primarily shades of blue and desaturated. However, Samwise has a tint of orange and yellow. These colors symbolically represent the good Samwise is fighting for and paint Samwise’s character as warm, endearing support for Frodo. These slight color clues have significantly improved visual storytelling.

At this point, the filmmakers cross-cut to a series of events that are taking place while Samwise is speaking to Frodo. Quick shots reveal that optimism is prevailing and reminds the audience that our heroes can complete their quest. 

I find myself relating to Samwise Gamgee, and want to be that support character for people in my life.

Avengers End Game

This paragraph contains spoilers. Sorry!

Avengers End Game- Director Joe and Anthony Russo

It’s easy to tell predictable stories. However,  developing a character who experiences unexpected results can often be an excellent storytelling tool.

In the Avenger’s End Game, Captain American became an unexpected underdog. Throughout the Marvel series, Captain America was the ultimate hero and rarely had moments of desperation.

In Avenger’s endgame, Villain, Thanos has destroyed half of the Earth’s population and is hellbent on destroying the rest of the universe so that he can rebuild it in his vision. Captain America and what’s left of the Avengers attempt to stop him. Thanos, equipped with the Infinity Gauntlet, is far superior, and it’s looking like the Avengers won’t be able to stop him.

But then something unexpected happens. As Thor, God of Thunder struggles to defeat Thanos, we see a close-up image of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, rising from the ground. Thor continues to work, and the hammer hits Thanos behind his head. The hammer then flies in the opposite direction of Thor. It’s this very moment where the filmmakers create tension with visual images.

You see, Thor is the only hero who can wield Mjolnir. It’s enchanted to be equipped by someone who is “truly worthy.” Fans knew this, so to see the hammer flying away from Thor created confusion. The shot of the hammer flying away lasted a few seconds, but for fans, it felt like an eternity. “Where is it going? What? How?”

Then it is revealed, a determined underdog, Captain America, is wielding Mjolnir. He has become worthy. The audience goes crazy, and Captain America storms Thanos.

If this wasn’t enough, Thanos still fights back and calls for backup. Now, an injured, lone Captain America looks desperate but refuses to back down. Then the audience here’s a noise coming from Captain’s headpiece. Every superhero Thanos eliminated appears from mysterious portals. Another surprise, Avenger’s Assemble.

Watson and the Shark

Watson and the Shark- Image Couresty: National Gallery of Art

This painting produced by Jonathan Singleton Copley is one of my favorite paintings of all time. The massive painting resides at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.

At first glance, the story of a nine-year-old boy who a shark attacked in Cuba might not be that clear. Instead, the painting forces users to create their own stories.   I love when artists can provide ambiguity for an audience’s interpretation. 

My Interpretations

  • How did this happen? 
  • How did the girl lose all of her clothes?
  •  Were they out hunting the shark, and things went wrong? 
  • Were they trying to teach the girl how to swim, and then the shark attacked?
  • Did the girl not pay her taxes and try to make the shark angry enough to attack her?  
  • Did she have COVID-19 and didn’t wear a mask? Was this her punishment?

I also love the artist’s composition. It’s often a habit amongst early artists to put their subjects directly in the middle of the frame. This practice could be more substantial by using other compositional strategies such as the rule of thirds or the Fibonacci sequence. In this painting, I love the decision to use triangles as the compositional strategy. It’s refreshing to see artists still use compositional techniques used in the 1700’s.

Buy War Bonds, 1942

Buy War Bonds, Image Courtesy: Library of Congress

The United States Works Progress Administration is one of my favorite collection of art. I’ve loved the WPA style developed to promote American’s to contribute to World War I and II efforts. The WPA also created posters to promote national parks, which inspired me to create propaganda posters to promote Massachusetts’ Southcoast.

There is one poster that speaks to me, however. Uncle Sam’s Buy War Bonds. The poster features a prominent Uncle Sam waving a large American flag as troops storm ahead. The artwork targets user’s feelings and inspires people to contribute to the war efforts. The poster is a masterpiece in visual storytelling and does an excellent job communicating a story to people.

I also love this poster because it also uses triangular based composition reminiscent of Watson and the Shark. Another detail I enjoy is the action travels towards the East, symbolic of America crossing the Atlantic Ocean to arrive in Europe.

Japanese Propaganda, 1942

An Italian Artist creates a propganda poster. Image Courtesy: Washington State University

One aspect of visual storytelling that intrigues me is perspective. It’s crucial to have a focused viewpoint in a story. Depending on the perspective, artists could tell different stories. This image, produced by an Italian artist, offers a different perspective of WWII.  

Instead, this poster offers the perspective of the Japanese people. Instead of rallying around a symbolic Uncle Sam character, the poster prominently displays a samurai, crushing the fleet of American forces. This poster also features a triangular composition, and the colors reflect the Axis’ alliance.

This poster also makes me think about conflicting histories and how we perceive history. It also makes me question if history is indeed accurate. I think about the Tulsa Massacre and wonder why it was missing in history books.

Without perspective, stories lack context, and this poster reminds me that there are always different perspectives to every stories. Sometimes we need to uncomfortably face those perspectives.

Lewis Wickes Hine

Child workers allow Lewis Hines to document their working condition

I grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, an old declining mill city. The mills play a prominent role in the city, and not talked about enough is the dark history these mills were part of. Textile mills in the early 1900s employed hundreds of young children.

Lewis Wickes Hine, a photographer, visited many mills across America, including Fall River, MA, and documented child labor practices. His work was part of the early photojournalism movement, and his images tell a profound story of the dangerous jobs children had in mills. 

His photographs are striking, often including worrisome expressions of children, documenting their way of life. What’s fascinating is that Lewis’ work helped change labor laws and limited the practice across the nation. 

Lewis Hines captures the portrait of a young child working in a mill in North Carolina. Courtesty: Getty.edu

For me, I admire his ability to capture normal people. He’s not glamourizing the rich and famous, but offering a platform for those without a voice. Artisically, it’s his style that impacted me significantly. His images include a subject in their environment and usually feature a soft background. I’ve always loved old photos that included a sharp subject and an incredibly soft-focus in the scene.

Lewis’ portraiture has lent itself to my visual story telling style. Most of my cinematography and photography feature sharp subjects with incredibly soft backgrounds in the subject’s environment. I have never felt comfortable in a photography studio and always prefered to shoot people in their environment. When it came to gear, I opt for a fixed focal point lens, either a 24mm, 50mm, or 85mm equipped with a fast aperture like 1.4. This allows me get that beautiful soft backround featured in Lewis’ photography.

Portrait of New Bedford Man
I shot this image of a New Bedford, Massachusetts man as he took a break from the summer heat.

A recap

To recap, my approach to visual storytelling includes 

  • Seeking essential images that convey the story, theme, or message in one frame.
  • Creating images that connect and relate to a viewer’s emotions.
  • Using color grading to enhance the psychology of the image’s effectiveness
  • Leave some room for ambiguity
  • Often invite the unexpected
  • Includes a certain perspective
  • Film and photography include shallow depth of field and feature a subject in their environments.

If you’d like to visit more of my visual storytelling style, please visit my film, New England posters, and photography portfolio.

1 Comment

  1. Hi, Drew! Great to be back in class with you – I always enjoy seeing what you come up with and I love your art.

    I think it’s very interesting that our images were rather similar – war propaganda, classic paintings, and turn-of-the-century photo-journalism. So, I must say that I agree with your choices for images that tell a story!

    I thought you did a lovely job relating the first image of Luke Skywalker with your own experience. I’ve never seen the Star Wars movies, but I felt like relating the image back to something that I could understand helped me feel the emotions the scene in the movie convey.

    In Watson & The Shark, I understand your statement about ambiguity. Of all the things happening in that paintings, I would not have guessed the nude individual in the water was supposed to be a child… Perhaps that was a bit of artistic license on the painter’s part. Whoever the person in the water is, they don’t seem to be doing a great job in helping themself although everyone in the boat seems to be working together to save them. It’s interesting that the person in the water seems to be reaching out toward the shark, while everyone else is reaching toward them, trying to stab the shark, manning the oars to get away, etc. I did find it a little bit confusing that you started referring the “the girl” in your interpretations. Was that on purpose?

    I thought your Japanese Propaganda image was really interesting as well. We are all so familiar with U.S. propaganda that it did shock me a bit to realize that other countries had their own versions (duh!). I thought you explained this image really well, including the use of triangular composition, color scheme and scale. I did find your mention of the Tulsa Massacre a bit confusing – while I understood that you were saying we don’t always include ALL of history in our history books, without knowing what the Tulsa Massacre is, the statement was not as poignant as it could have been and I just glossed over your point.

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