Looking through the camera lens, the light kit shining on my back like a halo, I wondered how I found heaven in a senior common room. My name is Armando, and I’m currently a Graduate Institute student at St. John’s College. Last month, the winter season had me itching for a project to break up all of the gray skies and dreary weather. I reached out to a friend named Kessler, who is also the chair of the undergraduate Photo Club. At St. John’s, interactions between students, staff, and faculty members are pretty common, especially where art is concerned! Kessler and I immediately settled on a glamour shoot, something that called Vanity Fair to mind. As we began setting up our equipment in the common room, I found my mind drifting to how I wound up in this common room, instead of at film or photography school…
Humans are, at their heart, story tellers. Everything in the universe is language-based, and we use language to create stories. They give us a common purpose around which to build communities and work together. Photography, sculpture, film, and all other art forms are also storytelling tools. They exist as a vessel for the core of our purpose: communication and connection. As I was moving forward in my career, I understood that, while technical competency is valuable in a photograph, it cannot replace the soul and emotion of a picture with a story. A photographer can have the best lighting, greatest composition, and most expensive gear, but without a driving creative force behind it, the picture will be in grayscale. All learned techniques have to be at the service of the story; to further the purpose of the shot.
What’s more is that technical skills are easy to find these days. They can be learned online for free, through workshops, or even at St. John’s itself! Once the fundamentals of operating a camera are obtained, the questions you ask yourself broaden: Which tool should I use? More important, which tool shouldn’t I use? How will these choices enhance the story I’m trying to tell?
Learning how to translate the written word into cinematic language requires critical thinking skills that go far beyond learning lighting techniques and editing programs. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but without a strong sense of story, the most skilled photographer and only communicate a hundred of them. This is the worst fate that I can think of: someone who has every talent but the one that matters. Someone who doesn’t know how to tell a story, or doesn’t take the Delphic “Know Thyself” warning to heart. A distinctive style like Inarritu’s or Tarantino’s isn’t merely memorized; it is learned and felt.
At St. John’s College we get to read the most remarkable stories that give us an understanding of who we are, our relationship to the world, and our relationship with one another. We are constantly exploring every aspect of a narrative, understanding character motivations and questioning literary structures on a profound level. That activity alone would help any photographer or filmmaker understand which lens, light, mood, or tone to use for each shot. Critical thinking is at the center of becoming a great storyteller, and it takes filmcraft to a completely new level of competency.
This leaves us with a question, of course, as all great Johnnie conversations do. How will you choose to tell your story?