My name is Oded Wagenstein and for the past 10 years I have been a professional freelance travel photographer and writer. The thing that interests me the most is the human story, so I focus mainly on shooting portraits, but I love working with all kinds of culture related subjects: landscapes, festivals, food – I love it all. But today I would like to talk about Visual Story Telling.
Calling Myself A Photographer Took Some Time
In fact, it took me quite some time to call myself a “photographer” and to decide to do it fulltime.
Like everyone else, I had a normal office day job, yet I spent my money and free time on photography. I was not spending it on buying new gear (!!) but on crafting my art: buying photography books, going to lectures, seeing the portfolios of photography masters and mainly traveling as much as I can.
I backpacked in many places around the world, from china to India and Turkey. I was there mainly alone and just focused on creating photos. Nobody sent me there and of course all the expenses were on me, but I approached those trips as photography assignments. I would wake up very early in the morning and would act as if there was a very demanding magazine editor out there, waiting for my work.
Getting My First Nat Geo Story
I eventually started working for some travel magazines and then had a few publications on the country’s most read newspaper. I built my portfolio up step by step, until the National Geographic Traveler magazine (Israeli edition), decided to run a story I wrote and photographed on the Karakorum highway, from China to Pakistan. It was a few years ago and I have been fortunate enough to work with them as a freelance since then.
I must say that working with the editor and the entire magazine staff has been the best learning experience I have ever had. I learned how to tell a whole story in just one image, and how to create a series of images for an editorial story. Actually, I recently interviewed my editor about visual storytelling. We discussed what it takes for a photo to be published in the magazine. You can read this interview on my recently published eBook- The visual Storyteller, by Craft&Vision.
Building A Visual Story
I believe that preparation is one of the core elements in the making of any kind of good image.
Usually, the process will start with a discussion with the editor about the desirable story.
It is important to note here is that a “country” or a “destination” does not equal a “story”.
You cannot believe the amount of inquiries these magazines are getting, saying: “hey there, I am a photographer traveling to china, can I bring you anything?”. This is an amazing time for photographers and your only tool for the job can be the iPhone in your pocket. However, the era of us traveling to Papua New Guinea or any other remote place to shoot some remote tribe and gain publicity is now over, because the world has already seen (almost) every corner of this earth.
Now, it is our job, the photographers, to portray these already known places, but from a different point of view. As Mr. Steve McCurry, the photographer of the famous Afghan girl image, and probably the best color portrait maker in history, has told me in an one – on – one interview I conducted with him: “A picture of a guy in the street in New Guinea, with a bone through his nose is interesting to look at. But for it to be a really good photograph; it has to communicate something about what it is like to live with a bone through your nose. It is a question of the moment to reveal something interesting and profound about the human condition.” once you understand this way of telling a visual story of a place, your will become a better visual storyteller.
So, the first step is to sit with the editor and discuss the desired story’s point of view. For example, I was heading to Kyrgyzstan and even though it was an incredible, off the beaten path destination; we still had to sit and decide on our approach: is it going to be trekking in the mountains or a home stay with the nomadic people that are living there? You cannot do it all in one article, so it is better to focus.
In addition, writing the stories for the magazine has helped me, over the years, to improve my ability of making visual stories. The writing process has taught me to pay attention to very important elements in visual storytelling, like: who is the main character and what the leading points of the story are.
Then, the next important step, before heading to the field, is to have a better understanding of the place I am heading to. It doesn’t matter if the story is about a modern city like Hong Kong or about a nomadic tribe in India, I will read about the history of the place and gain knowledge about the daily life. A stop at the local university library is must for every story I am about to shoot. I will also do my best to put my hands on the local music and, if possible, I will try some local dishes as well, as I do not like surprises. Sure, I give enough space for that unknown change of plans and a bit of adventure, where you discover an amazing location or a new person on the spot, but I try to be as ready as I can beforehand. If I have time, I will try learning a few basics sentences of the local lingo.
Then, only then, I will think about my gear list. The gear should be the outcome of the shooting list and not the other way around.
About The Author
Oded Wagenstein is a Travel photographer and writer. He is a regular contributor to the National Geographic Traveler magazine (Israeli Edition) and he is known for his intimate portraits from around the world. He lives with his girlfriend Shiri, in a small country-side village with nine cats and two guinea pigs. You can join his Portrait & Travel Photography Facebook page and continue to discuss on travel and people photography and get more amazing tips!
You can check out Oded’s new eBook “The Visual Storyteller“. It is all about creating better photographs by bringing stories to your image.