The practice of visual storytelling through photography involves many of the same components that a written story requires. Just as a writer needs to create an atmosphere in which to set out a story, so too does a photographic storyteller need to create the symbols, emotions, and mood that tell the story through images.
The challenge of telling a story with a single image and having viewers relate and connect to it is one that Patty Maher loves to explore in the boundaries between real life and the otherworldly, surreal, and fantastic. In her photo “She Carried Her Dreams,” Maher evokes the everyman’s experience of failed dreams. “The title of that photo goes a long way to evoke the concept, but also the posture of how [the subject] is holding on to the suitcase — keeping it close and holding it with a very firm grip, kind of how people hold on to their dreams. It is an example of me nudging the viewer to understand a message, where the suitcase is symbolic of something where dreams are held, and that when they ‘escape’ or don’t work out, it is a matter of waiting and calling on new dreams to come. I think anyone who has lived has had the experience of dreams not working out, and I think it’s important to have the ability, as humans, to create new dreams and goals in light of that,” Maher says.
Maher, who is fascinated by the deeper, more intangible elements of life, works purposefully to include a sense of mysticism in her storytelling. Her images — ethereal, solitary, isolated, and wistful — have a dark and supernatural aura to them, as though they are “always present, wafting their way in, in some form or other.” While Maher believes that these darker emotions are a part of the human condition, she also likes to portray a sense of hope and beauty in her stories to uplift them. Maher took up photography a mere five years ago. She got her start in conceptual photography (the illustration of ideas through photography) and this evolved into the telling of stories through image-making. Maher used self-portraiture almost exclusively as she began her storytelling, taking posed pictures of herself doing ordinary things such as reading a book, standing by a tree, and walking down the street. But she found focusing on herself got old really fast, so she dropped the “I” as her subject focus and instead used herself as an embryonic prop to create images that embraced drama, intrigue, and nuance. “Even if the emotion the stories came from was personal in the first instance, they became much more interesting when translated through a fictional character,” Maher says. “Moving out of the personal allowed viewers to come into the story and find their own meaning within it.”
An intrinsic component of Maher’s storytelling is that the emotions evoked are stoked exclusively through a female photo centric lens. “I would love to use men in my photography, but most of them resist the idea of dressing up in swooshy wigs and dresses; the ones who do just can’t pull it off,” she says jokingly. Maher finds that the props she now uses, often everyday objects she has on hand, add a symbolic tenor to her images, giving a full narrative to a photograph that has comparatively little narrative without it. Location and weather are also integral components to telling her stories, although with the elements so difficult to predict Maher often adds weather features later in Photoshop. “As in real estate, I think location is huge in storytelling. I spend a lot of time scouting out locations. In fact, everywhere I go and no matter what I’m doing I always have an eye out for a good location. I define ‘good’ as any location that sparks my imagination, either by its beauty or its desolation. I usually add in the weather later via Photoshop, although every once in a while I hit a day where I am ready to shoot and the weather does something really interesting,” Maher says. Maher is quite excited that her images have been likened to cinematography stills, a comparison that she considers high praise. “To have my images look like stills is definitely my intention,” she says.
Sketching ideas prior to shooting, a practice often used by conceptual photographers, is not part of Maher’s toolkit. “I tried it once, but for me it was kind of pointless,” she says. “Somehow I can’t translate a photo into two dimensions, and trying to do so kills the idea for me. I generally visualize what I want to do, and if I can’t do it right, then I write down the idea in words so I’ll remember it later.”
The internet is a huge asset to showcasing Maher’s work, both as a source of networking with other photographers and as a source for initiating new opportunities. “When I first started taking photos I posted them on a blog, which I found very useful as it gave me a way to collect and present them. Then, I started sharing my photos on places like Flickr and Facebook, where I’d receive both praise and constructive criticism from other photographers. Developing that kind of community interaction really helped propel me forward. Since then, almost every opportunity I’ve had with photography has come through the Internet, either from people seeing my photos in a feature or interview in an online magazine, or from photo sharing sites,” Maher says. “If I can touch something real for myself in a photo, then I usually find it has something in it for others as well. I often discard photos that might technically be considered a ‘good photo’ because they lack feeling.”
This story originally appeared in our 'Telling Stories' Spring/Summer issue - get it in print HERE.