Note: Welcome to the Visual Storytelling Case Studies! These are explorations of what makes images work, and how images communicate - beyond subject matter alone. From there, I translate the lessons learned into prompts, tips and methods we small business owners can use to harness the power of visual storytelling more effectively in our own businesses. Enjoy!
Case Study No. 1: Susan Sontag, photographed by Annie Leibowitz
The meaning of images are often hiding in plain sight. In other words, stating the obvious - "I see this" - reveals all we need to know about the workings of an image.
I see this: She doesn't look at the camera. Her eyes are half-closed. She does not smile.
I see this: I see her from almost eye-level - she is lying down, but not far below me, I am close to her.
I see this: The room is plain, no detail. The image is monochromatic in black and white. Textures are simple and soft.
She doesn't look at the camera: yet she doesn't look anywhere: she is experiencing something internally. She is half dreaming, thinking, or just feeling, in a state of rest. She is not here for us, not in communication with us, not inviting us.
We see her at eye-level: We are framed as her intimate. Someone close enough to witness a vulnerable moment of quiet, thinking, dreaming, rest. We do not dominate from above or worship from below: friendship or family is implied. (Notice - photographs frame their subject, but they also frame you - the viewer - in relation to the image.)
A plain room, no detail: Soft textures and a close range of black to grey. Without environmental details to give us reference, she is pictured out of time and place. Colors, patterns, objects would make her more a part of the everyday world. This image refuses us those details and points right back to Sontag herself: and her internal world which we cannot see.
This is an image of a great mind and a cultural creator, critic and influencer - living and breathing for herself, without a hint of performance for the camera. It is deeply sensual and intimate yet she is not available to us: she is her own. Photographed lovingly by her long-time creative (and possibly romantic?) partner, photographer Annie Liebowitz.
What do you see here? How does this image support (or not) Sontag's public identity? What is said here, what is not said? What feelings or questions or curiosities does the image raise in you?
Prompt: Play around with point of view and eye contact in a series of selfies. Photograph yourself from below, above, eye-level. Look at the images from the point of view of the photographer or viewer. What does the angle communicate about that relationship? Experiment with looking at the camera and looking elsewhere. What happens?