It’s a nice photograph, but it doesn’t really say anything

It doesn’t really say anything or It doesn’t tell a story are phrases I’ve heard many people say as they’re critiquing photos, typically as justification as to why a photograph shouldn’t be used in a certain context. At best, such a phrase is a polite way for a person to express genuine dislike of a photograph even though he or she cannot at the time fully enunciate the reasons for such dislike. At worst, it can be used as a cop-out to dismiss a photograph without going through a critical discussion or evaluation of the photograph in question.

Some photographs require more context than others in order for the viewer to extract meaning, and it could certainly be argued that such photographs are less useful in specific commercial use-cases. The opposite statement is also true: photographs that require less context for the viewer to extract meaning can be more useful for specific commercial use-cases. Put simply, different situations require different photographs, and in that way, some photographs are “better” than others.

The bottom line, though, is that every photograph says something, and to say or think otherwise does a disservice to the practice of photography. A photograph is literally a (very) brief moment in space and time, captured and preserved indefinitely in the form of an image. Some photographers might be more adept at capturing the right moment in time and space, at composing and framing the image, or at providing context for the photograph (or, selling themselves as “storytellers,” of which there certainly are a lot these days — but that’s for another day), but it’s impossible to deny the story behind a photograph — you just have to be willing to listen in the first place.

Take the above photograph. It’s a good example of a throwaway photograph that nevertheless has a few stories to tell. One is the generic story that the photograph conveys without any context other than the image itself. Most people can probably relate to the image portrayed here: a dog running along a beach. Anyone who has ever seen a dog at the beach will know the scene: a happy dog darting rapidly back and forth along the water’s edge — so rapidly, in fact, that the dog is completely out of focus in this particular image. Such a blatant technical imperfection would normally detract from a photograph, but in this case, the subject being out of focus can actually be seen to add to the story, as it accurately conveys the idea of the dog entering the frame for only a split second before exiting, causing the mistake on the part of the photographer.

A second story would be more specific, intimate, and personal, and it requires a firsthand account from the photographer’s perspective. In this case, that was me, and I could tell you many more background details about how this photograph came to be, adding layers to its story in the process – the drive across the Upper Peninsula, stopping to see old growth pine forests and eat pasties along the way, the family and their dog that we met at the edge of Lake Michigan. Naturally, such details are likely to be more useful in artistic or personal contexts than they are for commercial use, but that shouldn’t reduce their significance. Photography will always contain an element of personal narrative and memory. After all, it is people that make photographs.

So before you say, this photo doesn’t really say anything and move on, first make sure that you’re truly listening.