Uncovering the story in my work

Working on an image by image basis is what most of us do. Indeed, I think any other way is hardly ever considered. We tend to think of images as stories in their own right, and collections of our work tend to be location based : 20 images from Iceland, 34 images from China, etc, etc.

I’ve been more interested in the sum of the parts of a collection of work, than in individual images for a while now. I think I can find more about who I am as a photographer, when I put sets of images together.


I find several benefits of working on portfolios, or collections:

  1. By placing the images side by side, I find that the edits of one image inform another.

  2. Some images push others further on in their development. I realise that some images are under-produced and need further work to bring them up to the same level as others.

  3. I see my style of photography become more evident through this process.

Point 3 is the most important for me.

Most workshop participants who are wondering if they have a style often say something along the lines of ‘I don’t know if I have a style’. I know I have a style in my work, because I have found portfolio development instrumental into forcing me to see where the relationships and themes are in what I do.

There is an underlying story to our work. It’s sitting there in plain sight of us, but it just needs us to look at our work in a different way. Rather than working on images on an image by image basis, I’d recommend trying to find collections that sit together well. They tend to inform me about where my recurring themes are, what I tend to do a lot of, and how I use tone and form. Portfolios are teachers. It just takes us a little effort to put together work in such a way where it flows. We can learn so much about who we are as creative artists, and where our strengths and weaknesses are.

Uncovering the story of my work has been hugely instrumental in pushing my own development forward. Few of us enquire, reflect upon our work in a collective way. We tend to look at images one at a time, and to me, this is like looking at single words at a time. By putting the work together we form paragraphs and by collecting portfolios we put chapters together. This form of assemblage, after some time, begins to write a story of who we are and what we’re trying to say with our photographs.


We’re only here for a short while. And we all want to spend our time wisely. So the question we should all ask ourselves is this:

Q. do we cover as many places as we can, or do we focus our efforts on a few places and try to get to know them as best as we can?

This essentially boils down to these two options:

  1. Spread ourselves thinly and visit as many different locations as we can, and hope that the work we create during our brief time there will have depth to it.

  2. Concentrate ourselves to a few locations and focus on trying to build up a portfolio of work over a number of years of these places. The sacrifice is that you see a lot less of the world than you would if you chose option 1.

If there is an answer to this, then it’s maybe a bit of both options above. And something else: your drive. Although we may try to be logical and objective about what we should do, the truth is, we should respond to where we want to go from an emotional level. If you feel a pull to go back to a certain place again and again, then you should entertain it. Don’t thrown out a location simply because you’ve been only once. Repeat visits will give depth to your work and help you gain an understanding of a place that isn’t possible in one visit.

It really depends what kind of photographer you are. If self-development isn’t that important to you and you just enjoy being there and visiting / touring the world, then I think repeat visits aren’t of much interest for you. But if you are, like me, someone who wants to try to create work that is beyond the obvious, that is less derivative, then you have to find a few places that you can concentrate on and use as ongoing-projects.

I have learned so much from repeating places. I have also seen these places define my style. That’s something that I think is often overlooked: the kinds of landscapes you choose to photograph contribute to your style. Similarly, if you are going to certain kinds of landscapes, you should, after a while, see relationships between them. Common themes or aspects to them that will help you find out who you are as a photographer.

I’m not so interested in capturing ‘nuggets’ of work. Having 2 nice photos from one place, and 30 average shots doesn’t work for me. I’ve learned that it’s very hard to create outstanding work of a landscape in one shoot, one visit. A ten day trip to a location out of an entire lifetime is but a fleeting view of a place. Not a problem if you just enjoyed your time there and didn’t have any aspirations to create great work, but if you do, then you have to make that location a feature of your photographic-life and keep returning. It’s the only way to delve deeper, and to build up a strong set of images. That’s what I do.