Last week, while attending a graveside for a young soldier killed in Afghanistan, I noticed a man, leaning against a tree and watching from a distance. He wasn’t dressed like the mourners gathered, yet he seemed connected.
Who was he? A friend? A cemetery groundskeeper? A relative who chose to watch from a distance? I approached him and found him eager to talk. His name was Mark and he dug graves and buried people, and said he was thankful for the job, especially in this economy. “It’s an honor to be able to bury this soldier,” he shared. “This is the fourth in a week.”
One of my students will be following up and doing a story on the young gravedigger this fall. It will be a quiet story, but a relevant one. Many young people are still dying in wars across the globe. Many people (of all ages) are out of work.
Discovering the stories that live in the shadows of main events has always interested me. It is too easy to get seduced by what’s happening on the stage and miss interesting stories happening out of the limelight.
Learning to become a good storyteller is about observation, curiosity, listening and seeing the potential of a story. It is also about an insatiable need to share what you find and learn. Paraphrasing the great writer, Steven King, you don’t find stories; you “recognize” them. Furthermore, the notion that we must travel to exotic places or immerse ourselves in foreign cultures to tell “important” stories is simply not true. Meaningful and important stories are everywhere humans exist, or have been.
I also find it foolish that so many teachers discourage students from doing photo stories about their own families because they believe it “is too easy.” I teach that great storytelling begins at home. I understand the need for students to expand their comfort zones and encourage students to learn to build trust with strangers, but I also believe in developing those skills at home.
Some of the most intimate, storytelling images ever produced have come from photographers documenting family members. East of Eden (which some believe the best book John Steinbeck ever wrote) is based on Steinbeck’s own family history. What if he had been taught not to write about his family because it was “too easy?” I assure you if I wanted to learn to cut hair, I would practice on family members before clipping strangers.
As I grow longer in tooth, I find myself asking “Why?” more often. Perhaps age frees us from the imprisonment of unfounded conventional thinking and allows us to lay aside foolish notions and confining prohibitions. Whatever the key, I find I am a lot less likely to accept anything just because that is the way it has been done or taught.
Finally, it is unfortunate that our industry awards so many prizes for the bizarre – the disfigured, the addicted, the outlandish and abusers – and so little for the wonderful stories of everyday living and dying. Commending the twisted and eccentric lessens the likelihood of producing meaningful stories from everyday life.
There are so many stories – so many seeds that go forth from each life event – we need only open our eyes and hearts and let them find us.
David Labelle directs the Photojournalism Program at Kent State University. Each year he leads the “Pictures with Purpose” workshop. This year it will be held from July 19th to 24th in Chanute, Kansas. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from one of the best; you can find more information here.
Do you want to have fun and learn more about photography and storytelling with a camera? Here is your chance. David is also leading the Photo Scavenger Hunt in Ojai, California from July 29th to 31st. Click here for more information.