Telling a Compelling Story

I started my career in photography sort of on accident.  I was in my middle-twenties, largely inexperienced, and excited to have been invited to work as a photographer for a growing studio.  We were working hard and fast and the studio grew very quickly. And after some initial successes and victories I found it easy to get a head full of myself and rest on the built momentum to keep us moving forward.

It was around that time that we were getting so busy that often the weddings were booked by our studio director and I didn’t meet the couple until their wedding day.  This didn’t bother me at first, but after a handful of these “Hey there, nice to meet you! I’ll be your photographer today”-sort of meetings, it became clear to me that a very important part of the wedding photography process was missing.  I was doing my job – I was working hard for my clients and producing great work – but I wasn’t feeling a connection to them. I was serving them as best I could, but I didn’t feel like I knew them well enough to tell their wedding story the way it deserved to be told.

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body
goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
― Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

Story is so much a part of who we are, we simply can’t escape it.  It fills us, defines us, connects us. And as photographers, our role is two-fold — that of historian, recounting every pertinent moment of an event, every beautiful detail of a location, and every minute aspect of our subject, and that of storyteller, weaving together these details in a way that will draw up the same emotional fervor every time the photos are viewed.  The stories we tell inform, inspire, instruct, preserve, and connect the people, places, and events we photograph and those who experience them.

So how do we do it?  How do we engage ― rather, insert ourselves ― into the stories we are asked to tell?  How do we authentically weave a narrative that we are often a relatively recent addition to?  We asked our friend, the amazing Nikki of Nicole Briann Photography, to give us her thoughts on the process of connecting deeply with your clients and telling their story in a compelling way

I grew up in a home with a mom who took a lot of pictures…and I mean a LOT. Like it became a sort of joke about just how many pictures she took – and while we would make jokes and laugh about it in the moment or when we were on our family road trips, we cherished every single one of those photos. I would spend hours slowly flipping through the old family photo albums and relive moments of my childhood, and create memories of things I never experienced – because I had so many images of something, whether I was there or not – a story could be told.

Becoming a photographer wasn’t something Nikki had planned.  Like many of us, she changed her major in college and ended up working in a field well away from photography — in Nikki’s case, working in the field of forensic mental health.  But for her, it was a fit.

I spent nearly the next 8 years working in the highest level of forensic psychiatric care in the state for both adolescents and adults. 

Now you might be wondering why I even mention this…

You see, in the process of working in mental health, I came to appreciate the impact and importance of people’s stories. Of not just seeing the individual for who they are in this moment, but how they came to this point – how they grew up, how they think and process things – ultimately what it is that makes them, them. When it comes down to it, there really isn’t anything that is insignificant in the story of us. All the little moments add up to who we are and how we see and interact with the world. 

I used to say that photography found me – that I sort of fell into it. But I can see now that it wasn’t really that way. I know that both of these experiences – growing up with a mom who had a desire to capture each moment, and my experiences in mental health – learning to appreciate and value the importance of people’s stories – these things have made me the photographer I am.

Nikki’s passion for people and her pursuit of knowing them deeply, quickly gives her the opportunity to connect with them in an authentic way.  It’s this closeness with her clients that informs how she approaches each session or each wedding. Because she’s able to connect with them on this level, she comes to understand their humor, their passions, their priorities, and even their fears and insecurities.  And knowing these things — what to look for, what to highlight, what to minimize – assures her clients that they are her priority.

I am so incredibly proud of the experience I have developed for my clients. From the moment they inquire with me, it is 1000% about them and how I can do justice to their story. Every interaction I have with them, every step of my process I am working to instill confidence, reinforce how worthy they are, and help make them feel (and truly know) they are beautiful. 

None of what I do is about me. I want to love on and serve my clients the best way I know how. So I invest in them. I get to know them – truly know them – not just their names, how long they’ve been dating and how they met. I get to know who they are as a couple or an individual. The silly ridiculous stories about them. Who their people are – those that made their inner circle, how did they end up there? What have been their challenges in their relationship or in high school/college? Their successes? All the nitty-gritty – I want to know those things. When I show up on their wedding, I am a trusted friend, not simply another vendor. I am squealing excitement with the bride, crying the happy tears, sobbing during the father/daughter dance (I text my dad after every single wedding) and am celebrating with them in the joyous, beautiful day it was as I see them go from two individuals into husband and wife.

When I show up to a senior shoot, I am asking how their sport is going or how they did at a competition – asking about their boyfriend or siblings, trips, plans and work – things I know because I took the time to get to know who they are beyond a name in my calendar and a few memorized “fun facts”. I build relationships with them such that my senior model team turned into a high school model team, which lead me to create a college crew of young women because the girls I had on my high school model team wanted to stick around and continue to work with me. I have built a community of young women who are family – I know about the difficulties with their families, cry with them over breakups and celebrate with them on accomplishments. Years later, I am now getting to tell their love stories as I capture their wedding days, and have hundreds of photos of them literally growing up in front of my eyes – and I have the significant privilege of telling their story.

And here’s where Nikki brings it home —

Why does this matter? Because it allows me to tell their story fully, authentically and do so in a way that honors them and their people. I go into the day looking for details.  There’s no such thing as an insignificant moment, and there’s no such thing as an insignificant detail, either. From the jewelry that has been chosen to the way in which the couple holds hands, it all adds up to this beautiful story. I want their grandchildren to view these photos and think “he still holds her hand like that” or “she’s been wearing that since…”

I have story after story of the way a simple photo has impacted lives – how choosing me for a senior session helped a teen feel beautiful and worthy for the first time, or how I captured portraits of a husband and wife with their toddler and new baby only a few short months before he was diagnosed with a rare cancer that took his life.

You see, a shoot is never just a shoot. It’s never just another session on our calendar. It is an opportunity for impact. It is an opportunity to capture moments that will be re-lived and re-felt, over and over again. And when you realize that – let it really sink in – it changes everything.  Or at least, it should. 

So how about you?  Are you already practicing these sorts of techniques?  What do you find helpful? Where have you struggled? Leave us your thoughts in the comments — we’d love to keep the conversation going!

“And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning
in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless
scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.”
― Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
1Comment
  • Pamela McVey
    Posted at 23:16h, 02 August

    Wonderful post and interview showcasing the importance of capturing stories, before they fade from memory.