What You’ll Learn
How can being a better photographer make you a better storyteller? Documentary photographer Billy Weeks discusses how capturing the right photograph is more than just having technical skills and equipment, but knowing what story you are conveying with each element of an image.
Guest SpeakerBilly Weeks
Show NotesWatch Billy Weeks' Ted Talk
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.
Andy Johns: How can being a better photographer make you a better storyteller? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host with WordSouth and Pioneer. And I’m joined on this episode by Billy Weeks, who is a documentary photographer. He will be the photography instructor at the StoryConnect Communications Workshop out in Oregon, and he is an associate lecturer in communications, teaching photojournalism at UT Chattanooga. Billy, thanks for joining me.
Billy Weeks: Thank you, Andy. It’s really an honor to be here talking to you today.
Andy Johns: Now, full disclosure, Billy is not only a professor at one of my alma maters, UT Chattanooga, but we also used to work together back at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. So I was excited to hear that Billy is the photo instructor out at the conference, the workshop out on the West Coast. A few details about that. If you’re not already registered, the StoryConnect Communications Workshop is going to be September 25th to 28th in Newport, Oregon. You can go to Pioneer.coop, our website, to find more details there. And it’ll be a great few days of really intensive work on photography and written storytelling. Just really getting into quite a few different, not just tricks of the trade, but kind of the reasons why we do it. I’m looking forward to going out there. It’ll be my first one to attend, and I’m looking forward, Billy, to what you what you have to say out there. So let’s start right there. And without giving it all away, when you go and present, because I know you’ve been on other podcasts, you’ve done the TED talks. When you go to speak to a group of people who are storytellers, maybe not all photographers or photojournalists, visual storytellers, where do you even start when somebody says, “Hey, we’d like for you to come speak about photography and visual storytelling?”
Billy Weeks: Well, that’s a good question. Andy, you know, you can take that in many different directions. Usually when I talk to a group of photographers, most of them want to talk about the technical side of photography. And the technical side of photography is a craft, right? I mean, there’s a lot in there that you’ve got to think about f stops and shutter speeds and distance and camera lens and cameras and selections and tripods. And then there’s all kinds of things there to think about. Some of that has to do with storytelling, but most of it doesn’t. It’s important that you get the technical side down and we’ll talk some about the technical side. But I think mostly what I’m interested in when I sit down and talk to other photographers is is where their hearts at, and what are they trying to say with the photograph that they’re trying to create? And I think it’s really important, and I think if there is a failure with photographers today is that they’re making photos without a point of view. You may remember, Andy, back in elementary or school days where you had to you would, your teacher would teach you how to diagram a sentence, and you’d have a subject, and you’d have a verb, and you’d have a direct object.
Andy Johns: Somewhat painful memories there, but yes, yea.
Billy Weeks: Yeah, man, I hated that back in the day. I hated it because unlike yourself, I didn’t have those written skills. Or at least I had them, but they weren’t very good. So I had to kind of work on that a little bit. When you’re actually working with a camera, you know, that same kind of diagram actually plays a role in that, right? Your subject, you know, you kind of know what your subject is that that becomes important to you. And then your action of the photo becomes the verb, the visual verb of the picture, which is incredibly important. And a lot of people miss that. You know, they either make photo assignments, or they show up when there’s a lack of a verb happening in the moment. And then the direct object of the picture is the background. All right. That’s everything else. And photographers who understand that and handle the direct object or the background of the picture make a really good living at this. So if you think about that, you should be able to look at a photo from somebody and be able to diagram that photograph exactly the same way as if I put a sentence in front of you and diagramed it. And I think once you break that down and make it simplified that way, you start understanding how to tell a story with a photograph. And I think most of us are interested so much in the technical side or maybe interested in one part of that diagram rather than the complete package, and it becomes a lesser of a moment.
Andy Johns: So when we’re talking about photography today, and you harkened back to elementary school days, you know a different time now when everybody’s a photographer because everybody carries a camera with them 24 hours a day, all the time. It’s right near us with our phones. And the technology’s gotten better and better there. I’ve heard folks say now it’s more important than ever to take those photos, but we’re also seeing so much more of them coming at us from everywhere. What do you think are some things that folks can do to tell that story? And I guess the platforms are so different now. You know, you and I both have a newspaper background or magazines, but now anybody can be a storyteller through photos on social media platforms or wherever. What are you seeing as just ways that people are taking those tools, and like I said, anybody becoming a storyteller that way?
Billy Weeks: Yeah. Well, first of all, the drastically improved over the last many years. Film photography was a completely different animal than digital photography is today. And the fact that cell phones can do so much. Not only can they take great photos and really adequate video, they’re also great audio recorders. And all three of those tools, I think, are important in storytelling and in documentary work. Right. I mean, you can use the audio recorder to record something if you want to make a slideshow and put it together. Or you can use the audio recorder to take notes of the photos that you’re making. And I think all of that is important. So I don’t want to lessen the technology here because the technology is really important, I think. Also Time magazine a couple of years ago, maybe four or five years ago now, in their written piece that went along with their photos of the year at the end of the year said that there would have been more photographs taken and that one particular year, then the entire history of photography. So there’s tons of photos being made. That being said. That being said. I think the quality of photographs, I think are still a challenge. Right. I mean, if you’re going to make photographs with your phone, the good news is, is that you can make photographs with your phone.
Billy Weeks: The bad news out of that is that you don’t have control of the background as well as if you’re using professional lenses or even pro-consumer lenses. And you don’t have the same kind of controls with your phone that you do with your camera. So there’s some limitations there. But if you’re able to photograph the content, which is the most important, right? I mean, that’s our most important reason for being there. We should do that, right? I mean, never miss an opportunity to photograph content, good content. Even if everything else is not up to par, you still should push the button. So at least that gives you an opportunity, you know, to put it with the rest of your storytelling elements. And I think that’s important. I see so many photos today on Instagram and Facebook and some of the other things, and many of them are spectacular. Many of the others are not. And there’s an awful lot of mediocre images. And some of that’s because it’s people just having fun with their cell phone, and you want to encourage that.
Andy Johns: I feel like you’re specifically talking about brunch photos of everything that everybody has ever eaten.
Billy Weeks: So there is those themes, too, right? You see it.
Andy Johns: And full disclosure. Full disclosure there. I was stumbling over that last question. The next question I had on my list. The second question of the interview was, you know, when we’re looking at a two or three day workshop or I’ve even seen photography classes or workshops that are one hour or two hours, I was going to ask you if somebody can really become a better photographer in a short little time like that. But your answer to the first question of the interview had already made me a better photographer. So you kind of proved that point right there. But I did want to get into the TED talk that you had done. I think it combines nicely with what you had said previously. In the TED Talk, which is worth a look on YouTube. We’ll put a note in the show notes of this episode. But in there, you talk about photography or documentary photography, and you said it’s a combination of the photographer’s background and the subject’s present day. And I thought that was a really cool way to put that. I know you unpack it more in the TED Talk, but for the listeners here, can you unpack that for us that photography is a combination of the photographer’s background and the subject present day?
Billy Weeks: Yeah, here’s kind of my thinking out of that is that you bring with you, your history to an event. And one of the projects that I love to photograph is baseball because, you know, I’m like most kids who grew up back in the day, you know, had big dreams of playing third base for the Braves. And of course, of course, that is never going to happen. And by the way, I appreciate your hat.
Andy Johns: I knew that baseball was going to come up at some point if you and I were talking about it.
Billy Weeks: But here’s the thing, Andy, is that even though I didn’t get a chance to actually play baseball for the Braves, I did get a chance to cover four World Series for them. And I covered the last one on, with the photographer of the Atlanta Braves calling me up and saying, “We’d very much like for you to come back and photograph the World Series with us.” And I did the three games in Atlanta. I didn’t get to go to the Houston game, the Houston three games, but I did the three in Atlanta. So here’s kind of my thinking out of this is that you bring your background to whatever your photographing. If one of my projects is baseball and I, you know, when I go and photograph baseball, I photograph things that are familiar to me. Right? I photographed Little League baseball games. I photographed, you know, World Series games. I photographed minor league games. I’ve been to the Dominican Republic, I guess, I don’t know, several, several times to photograph young players who grow up in the slum areas or the sugarcane areas and what they do and what makes it different for them to play baseball then what we see here in the States. Here in the States, baseball has competition between football and tennis and soccer and volleyball and many other things. But when you get into many of the other countries, particularly the Latin countries, you either get everybody plays baseball or everybody plays soccer. And that’s the competition you have. And you get a little bit of basketball in there, too. So my thinking with that statement is that, you know, I bring what’s familiar to me to tell that story. It’s my background that decides when I push the button. And it’s the subjects, you know, whatever they are doing at the present moment that actually tells that story. In some ways with being a documentary photographer, in some ways, you know, that story is just as much mine as it is the person who’s actually doing it. And that’s what I’m trying to get across with that talk.
Andy Johns: Excellent. And again, a lot of the pictures from the Dominican are in the TED Talk that you’ll get to see if you take a look at those. There are going to be folks listening because this, the audience for this this podcast is kind of a general communications marketing audience. They’re going to be people that are listening that say, “Yeah, I would love to develop my photo skills, but the only thing I ever get to shoot is somebody handing somebody a big check,” you know, or new employee headshots or something when they’re starting. So are there some things that people can bring to whatever assignments they’re doing, even if they aren’t, you know, anywhere near glamorous or maybe the story is not as apparent, are some of these these fundamentals, and the idea, the theories and thoughts behind documentary photography are the things that people can bring to the more mundane corporate type of photo work that they may be doing?
Billy Weeks: The answer is yes. There’s a lot there. First of all, you know, if you’ve got a good for you kind of photo assignments, you know, somebody worked in an area for 30 years, and you want to highlight that person, and you want to photograph them with the boss. I mean, you can do that. Find a good background for that picture to be made in, and find it and make it simple. Use the correct lighting and get the technical side to be correct. And look for what we typically refer to in the photo industry as a moment, you know, that moment where one person looks at the other person or that moment where somebody says something and the other person reacts to it, that will help. A lot of publications are going to require you to go out and photograph a stand up photo where there’s four or five people who are important to that story, usually, standing in a row holding a check or shaking hands or cutting your ribbon. Yeah, all of that, you know, and I don’t want to discount that, right. Because when you cut a ribbon to a new building for a big company, that’s a news event. And you want to tell that story. My encouragement for that would be a couple of things. First of all, if the reporter, whether it be a writer or whether it be a visual reporter, have time, they should either go early and photograph what the place looks like, spend some time there, or come back the next day when the new building or the person that they’re highlighting is actually on the job and working and find that visual verb, right, that helps tell that story. Because a visual verb of standing there and shaking somebody’s hand or visual verb of standing there and holding a check is not a strong photograph. But if you go back and I don’t know, I’ll just make something up. So you’ve got an employee that’s been on the job for 50 years, and he’s been a great employee and you’re going to write a story about him. But, you know, the company’s kind of wanting a picture with him, with a with, I don’t know, the director of his office. And that’s a fine photo to make, right? It is. But if you really want to tell that story, that story is about him getting up every day, going to work, doing his job and being great at his job, and then going home. And you want to celebrate that. So I would say that that picture of him standing there with his director would be a great supporting photo. But maybe the picture of him, whatever he’s doing, we’ll say he’s a lineman, because my son-in-law’s a lineman, we’ll say he’s a lineman. And he’s up on a pole working, and you’re up there with him making that wide photo that’s really dynamic. And that would be the lead photo. So you kind of, you kind of turn it a little bit. Now, having said that, I get it. There’s restraints on time and and everything else that goes along with that. But that’s the better way of telling that story.
Andy Johns: Excellent. I agree. And that’s really good insight. I have I’ve learned a few things on this this episode, and hopefully listeners have as well. If you are interested, there’s still spots available for the StoryConnect Communications Workshop. Again, it’s in late September. Newport, Oregon. Tough to beat the location. Billy will be out there, which ought to be a plus. I’ll be out there, whether that’s a plus or not, I’ll be there as well. But Billy, thanks for the insight here, and thanks for all the insights that we can all look forward to in September.
Billy Weeks: Andy, it’s a real honor to get to talk to you today. I really appreciate you and thank you.
Andy Johns: He is Billy Weeks. He is the upcoming speaker, upcoming photography instructor at the StoryConnect Communications Workshop, documentary photographer and lecturer of communication at University of Tennessee Chattanooga. I’m your host, Andy Jones with WordSouth. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.
Intro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.