Do Good Stories Trump Good Photos? HONY, Selby and More

Photo by Brandon Stanton

Photo by Brandon Stanton

Photos have been historically considered as a means to record history. But the proliferation of digital devices and social media have turned photography into a visual language. Photos go viral for a multitude of reasons (e.g. humor), but it’s often stories that effectively communicate a story that resonate with our humanness and humanity. I’ve recently come across two examples where good stories arguably beat out better photos as shown by the viral spread throughout social media. Do you agree?

The Sartorialist, The Selby and Humans of New York

It would be laughable to debate the success of any of these blogs and the photographers behind them. Scott Schumann effectively created the genre of fashion blogger with The Sartorialist in 2005, and utilized shallow depth-of-field and environmental portraiture to create an oft-repeated style.

But the story is the same with each photo — i.e. there is no story. It’s street fashion with no context other than where and when the photo was taken. His early photography isn’t great, but his eye and technique dramatically improved over time leading to photos like this one: Thoroughly well-composed, well-exposed and a lovely portrait of a man in his sartorial best.

Photo by The Sartorialist

Photo by The Sartorialist

Todd Selby started photographing his artist friends in their homes or workspaces in 2008 for The Selby. As word got around, requests for shoots started to flood in, and he parlayed this success into books and ad campaigns for brands like Cole Haan, Nike, Louis Vuitton and more.

Unlike Schumann’s solitary portrait, Selby publishes a set of photos from the portrait to an environmental detail, and finally includes a hand drawn interview sheet that better conveys the personality of the subject. Selby is arguably the better photographer with better stories, but the stories are often about an artistic elite making them less relatable to the everyman. Here is typical environmental portrait of Terence Koh and Garrett Gott.

Photo by Todd Selby

Photo by Todd Selby

The unemployed NY transplant, Brandon Stanton, started Humans of New York (HONY) in 2010 on a quest to document “create an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants” with the intent of photographing 10,000 New Yorkers. Four years later, his Facebook followers exceed the population of New York City. Of the three blogs, it is arguably the most viral (not necessarily the most commercially successful), while having the worst photography. That isn’t to say it’s bad photography, but there’s no denying that Selby is far more consistent in producing good photography than Stanton.

Take this recent photo from Stanton’s trip to Iraq as a part of a UN World Tour. The image isn’t particularly sharp, there are tons of distracting background elements, the high key areas of the photo pull your eye away from the subject. But here’s the story:

“My happiest moments are whenever I see my mother happy.”
“What’s the happiest you’ve ever seen her?”
“When I was a child, some German doctors told us that I could have a surgery in Italy, and my legs would work again. She was so happy she started crying. But I never had the money to go.” (Erbil, Iraq)

Photo by Brandon Stanton

Photo by Brandon Stanton

HONY resonates with a large audience because its stories are more universal despite frequent criticism. Whether or not he slices and dices his interview to come up with more compelling dialogue is irrelevant to his superior story telling abilities.

He knows how to tug on your emotions. One can argue that it is the captions and not the photos that make HONY successful, but that is a technicality in my opinion. Many photos — even the best — require a caption to understand context.

Jen Davis & Haley Morris-Cafiero

Yale MFA-recipient Jen Davis started to explore her self-identity and weight with a self-portrait entitled “Pressure Point” in 2002. The exploration continued with her Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence project entitled “Looking and Looking.”

We live in a society that stigamatizes the obese, and her images are an incredible visual document of the confinement that her weight imparts on her physically and psychologically. This image is a technical masterpiece that is reminiscent of Vermeer.

Photo by Jen Davis

Photo by Jen Davis

It’s seems insensitive to compare the merits of two stories of self-identity and weight against one another. Whether it was a function of timing and the spread of social media or some intrinsic the story, there’s no denying that Haley Morris-Cafiero‘s Wait Watchers had larger virality.

Morris-Cafiero’s images don’t have the technical mastery of Davis. This is partially a function of the style (photojournalism vs “art”), and also reflective of the more experienced Davis. That said, I would argue that her photos evoked a stronger reaction because of the overt bullying and harassment depicted behind her back. Morris-Cafiero’s images are almost homage to Davis. Whereas Davis’s images are quiet and solitary, Morris-Cafiero’s scream at us. Injustice? Bullying? Lose some weight?

Photo by Haley Morris-Cafiero

Photo by Haley Morris-Cafiero

Purist might lament my point. “A photo should stand on its own!” However, as many people have pointed out, you can be a great photographer but a poor businessperson and fail to succeed. Similarly, in today’s hyper-connected but highly decentralized world of “publishing,” good photography is rarely enough to go viral.

Storytelling is a vital skill for success, and that’s arguably a good thing for photography and photographers because it elevates an aggregation of pixels into a meaningful amalgam of life.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.

  • Greg Eigsti

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece, a good thought provoking read. There are far to many picture takers and not enough story tellers, thanks for pushing me towards the latter.

  • Richard

    This is an excellent piece of both thinking and writing. A pleasure to read (and see). I’ve been scanning old slides recently and I can attest from my experience with a few thousand of them, it’s not about the photography (for me), it’s about the memories and stories that go with them.

  • Ian Lindo

    So, the argument is that telling a “story” is better than seeking out good light and good composition?

    I think there’s a place for both, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other, but if I had to choose I’d still err for good light and good composition. I love seeking out interesting light and good composition. In most of my “story telling” images they don’t really feel all that great because even if I captured a certain moment, it seems like the photograph is more about the people in it or the subject, and less about the person behind it (yours truly). Something about that just doesn’t wash with me very well.

    But hey, everyone’s different. I can’t really argue that one approach is better than the other, because in photography there is no such thing as a wrong answer.

  • David Vaughn

    I think that’s the difference between documentary/photojournalism and fine art. In fine art, the photo is about you, and in photojournalism the photo is about the situation/subject.

    At least that’s the way I see it: two schools of thought that often overlap.

  • Burnin Biomass

    A good story can make up for shortcomings in a photo, and a great technical photo can make up for not much of a story. However, if you combine the two, you knock it out of the park. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    Myself personally, I usually will go for a better looking photo over a story. I’m more visual, and that matters more to me than most stories.

  • Ian Lindo

    Agreed. I’d like to add that it’s very important that we do not limit ourselves regarding exactly what a “story telling” image would be. For example, thinking that there is only a “story” if a person is in the image somewhere.

  • David Vaughn

    I think the reason why HONY is so popular is because the photography fits the concept and subject matter. The photos usually have shallow DoF to isolate the subject, pleasant, even lighting so their whole visage is shown, and sometimes a bit of spontaneity that conveys a bit of the subject’s personality. Those aspects mixed with the stories work well together, so even though the photos aren’t spectacular on a technical level (WHERS DAH STROOBES AND DAH COLOGRADED FADED BLACK PP OMG SO LMAE AND BOOOOORING), but it works well within its context. It allows the viewer to connect with the subject of the photo.

    If the photos had that glitzy commercial look that requires 10 assistants, an art director, and 3 stylists, I don’t think it would have quite the same relatability.

    This is just what I think though.

  • tonyc0101

    We have to remember the iconic photos that captured history and gauge whether the technicalities even mattered beyond the photographers, considering that the photos served their purpose, such as the photos of:

    -The events of 9/11 (no one ponders what shutter speed is used in ANY of those shots)
    -The rescue of baby Jessica McClure (“Photographer should’ve angled toward the crowd!”)
    -The Kennedys’ assassinations (“hy wasn’t a longer lens w/ a shallower DOF used?”)

    -Waco (“They should’ve used a fisheye lens and gotten next to the tanks!”)
    -Any wartime photos (“Always use that flash for the most dramatic lighting possible!”)


    The problem comes in when the technicality gets in the way of the story that’s being told, if an image is out of focus, or shows excessive effects of camera shake, has a dirty lens, or has a DOF so shallow that the DOF should’ve been what the article’s about (lol)…which also goes for editing too.

    In other words, the best and most memorable pictures result from when the photographer is nowhere in it.

  • csmif

    “One can argue that it is the captions and not the photos that make HONY successful” I have always felt that about his blog. And what is also impressive about HONY is that he has been able to connect with and get so many people to open up about some aspect of their story. That, in of itself is amazing. The photos themselves are absolutely nothing special.

  • Linka A Odom

    I was literally thinking about this yesterday, specifically in relation to HONY. The fact is that he is not an amazing photographer. But his viewers relate to the people in his photographs and this makes his work outstanding. I think the fact that his photographs are not necessarily ‘good’ in a traditional sense, is the reason why people love him. A lot of this stems from peoples personal egos….so instead of inciting jealousy or awe, he creates connection. People look at his photographs and see their own skill level and thus ‘see’ the people in the image, as opposed to looking & seeing the photograph itself as an object of desire. His passion and dedication are commendable & his ability to affect change is undeniable. It’s important work he is doing. As a photographer, when I first saw his work, I was a bit put off that this guy was so successful, I mean where is the lighting, where is the composition. But as time has progressed, I am truly happy that his work is gaining attention and that people are able to see other people as part of themselves…

  • Linka A Odom

    I just wrote a very similar comment, I completely agree. He allows ones ego to rest…by actually not being that good of a photographer. I suppose great minds do think alike, haha ;)

  • Bjørnar Verpeide

    Interesting reading through your point there.

    I especially like how you made the opposing side of your argument look dumb – or lesser than you, by typing in all caps and broken English.

    Just out of curiosity, I wondered why you sounded so defensive, so I clicked on your name and clicked on your facebook icon in the upper right corner, then I realized. You kind of take the same bad pictures as the HONY look. You complaining about glitzy commercial looks and DAH STROOBES AND DAH COLOGRADED FADED BLACK PP OMG is because you’re one of these people who make the other side of what you can’t do look bad, because you’re not capable at any of that yourself. I don’t know, maybe it’s defense mechanism or something, but you came off really desprate.

    Lets just be honest with ourselves here; HONY isn’t made up of good portraiture photography, but David Vaughn relates to it because his photo’s aren’t very skilled either. But to do anything different than what his weak work looks like would be “SO LMAE AND BOOOOORING” and photoshop blah blah blah.

  • David Vaughn

    The mix of ad hominem attacks and deflection of my main point makes me take your argument seriously.