For more than two decades, photography has been my passion. I’ve used my camera to tell stories that aren’t being told, focusing on diverse cultures, social justice, and environmental issues. For several years, I documented daily life in Cuba, from the urban streets to the countryside. As a recent Elevating Stories presenter, I shared my perspective on visual storytelling and how a willingness to have a point of view can lead to more poignant and connected photographs.
I believe having a point of view about what I’m photographing is imperative. It’s what allows us to see in a deeper more sensitive way. When I embarked upon my Cuba book project, I began the visual journey with a romanticized notion of the Cuban revolution, looking for positive remnants throughout the island nation. But while on location, it became evident there was more to the visual truth that I could unveil. Over time, I better understood the complex dynamics and many layers. In Cuba Black and White I wrote, “it’s easy to romanticize revolution, it’s harder to live in its aftermath.”
I found beauty and ingenuity amongst struggles. I found a nation waiting for a change and hoping for a rebirth, reflected as a metaphor in my images of the maternity series. In my book I wrote, “It was ultimately within the shadows that I found Cuba’s dichotomies in all their beautiful trying complexities. … Within revolution there’s music and the rhythm of life happens.” That rhythm of life is the pulse and essence of what Cuba felt like in all its dynamic truths. That is the feeling portrayed in the images in my book.
Achieving this deeper understanding was only possible by adopting a point of view, investing time, listening closely, and approaching the work with a willingness to see things differently.
When the central character in your story is a 730-mile river, that means swimming at sea level, flying at 10,000 feet, and zooming out across states to capture all perspectives. In our third installment of Elevating Stories, we followed Heather Hansman down a natural storytelling path where she explained the secret to weaving together many points of view.
As part of the research for her book, Down River: Into the Future of Water in the West, Heather paddled 700 miles of the Green River in a solo pack raft from source to confluence, getting a firsthand look at the ongoing fight over water rights on the largest tributary of the Colorado River. Along the way she interviewed stakeholders such as ranchers, farmers, conservationists, and city officials while learning about the river itself at water level. Her book expertly bridges science, adventure, and conservationism, bringing together information from different camps to enlighten the reader.
Heather makes it look easy to build multiple perspectives and storylines into one narrative. Here are three tips we learned for making sure the big picture captures it all and keeps your audience engaged:
Take a journalistic approach. Do extensive background research to understand the subject matter and build a comprehensive story. Once you speak the language of a topic you can write accurately and authentically.
Don’t act like an expert if you’re not one. You need a solid foundation to ask the right questions, but then let the experts do the talking. This allows you to listen and discern the most salient points.
Make your narrative action oriented. Weaving in some adventure keeps the audience hooked. The tricky part is to stay true to your thesis and main points.
Heather reminded us that solid storytelling starts with asking the right questions and a having willingness to go on a journey to learn more.
Malaka Gharib makes sense of a complicated world by making art. As a journalist, zine-maker, and graphic novelist, Malaka is in her element writing and illustrating her unique perspective of the world around her. We had the pleasure of learning about her creative approach to storytelling in the latest edition of Elevating Stories–a series of talks with authors, experts, and creators held at 2A.
Malaka traveled to Seattle from her home of Washington, D.C. to present at the Short Run Comix and Arts Festival, the city’s preeminent convention on alternative comics and handmade books of all kinds. In addition to the festival and speaking at 2A, she also used her trip to promote her new graphic memoir about growing up as a first-generation Egyptian-Filipino American, I Was Their American Dream. In an authentic conversation, Malaka revealed these lessons she’s learned from finding her creative identity and professionally publishing her first book.
You can’t always depend on your day job to be a creative outlet
After graduating from college as a magazine journalism major during the 2008 financial crisis, Malaka realized that she couldn’t rely on her 9-to-5 job for creative expression. So she figured out how to do it in her free time. By carving out time to write and draw on her own accord, she made zines and art that truly satisfied her own personal agenda.
Making art helps us persevere
As the child of Egyptian and Filipino immigrants, Malaka struggled to make sense of her personal identity growing up. She learned as a teenager that following creative pursuits could help her understand and celebrate her uncommon background. After Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric helped him become president, Malaka knew she had to write a book about her upbringing that served a counter argument. Self-expression enables catharsis, and Malaka was able to cope with the state of the world by taking on the biggest creative project of her life.
Zines can be storytelling building blocks
Zines are self-published magazines that don’t follow print conventions, which makes them flexible tools for storytelling especially suited to people tight on time like Malaka. To quickly get her creative energy out, Malaka’s made a habit of creating mini comic zines from a single sheet of paper during idle moments. When she faced the daunting task of creating a 160-page graphic novel, Malaka structured it as a compilation of eight zines. By breaking the novel into familiar subcomponents, she was able to control her focus and organization.
Collaborate, but don’t compromise your vision
Writing and illustrating your first novel is inherently a learning process. And for someone used to the DIY nature of zines, working with dozens of book agents, publishers, designers, and editors made for a dizzying experience. More than 60 people contributed to the creation of her book, and their guidance was sometimes in conflict. At one point, her work-in-progress novel was a problem she just wanted to throw money at to fix. But after taking command of her vision, she put the right stakeholders in place to get the best version of her book across the finish line.
To the uninformed, writing a book sounds romantic. However, Malaka’s uncensored depiction of writing and drawing a graphic memoir took us behind the curtain to understand how messy the creative process can be. She candidly shared obstacles in her journey as a storyteller, but also proved that creating something that beautifully captures your perspective is worth the struggle.
Moody was in town to promote his new memoir with a reading at Elliott Bay Book Company, conveniently located across the street from 2A’s offices. Knowing that he was coming to Seattle and that he probably had time to kill before his reading, we invited him to share his insights about the art of storytelling with our team. 2A specializes in storytelling for business and we figured we could learn something from this master storyteller, who has also sustained a long teaching career, currently at Brown University.
Moody didn’t disappoint, to say the least. He opened our conversation with the classic diagram you spot on whiteboards in many a writing workshop, sometimes referred to as Freytag’s triangle, which charts the passage of narrative tension, climax, and denouement over time:
Pretty basic stuff so far. Then Moody challenged this model, which, he noted, served a nineteenth century understanding of the novel. Jane Austen, the Brontës, Charles Dickens, Thackeray et al wrote works that all, more or less, conformed to the readerly expectations set forth in this model. Conflicts are introduced, complications arise, a false climax is followed by a reversal, the real climax happens, and then the novel gracefully concludes with order restored.
In the early twentieth century, the rise of modernism in works from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, et al, introduced narrative subjectivity to storytelling. Writers became more concerned with the vagaries of individual conscious minds. And once writers began to perceive the pattern of conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement, they started considering it formulaic and contrived, and so sought a new engagement with literature.
Moody also noted that the Freytag’s triangle model of storytelling conveyed an excessively male vision of how the world works, at which moment the white board Moody was writing on collapsed, in what can only be described as exquisite timing.
According to Moody, the evolution of storytelling took a turn with the works of Russian writer Anton Chekhov, whose literary innovation was the “slice of life.” These were stories that didn’t deliver climactic scenes or tidy resolutions; instead they gave us glimpses into the everyday lives of characters.
Still, Moody was unsatisfied with the slice of life model of storytelling. So he developed an equation that he believes distills the art of storytelling to its essence. It looks like this:
S = t(B) ÷ Cn
Stories (S) equal time (t) acting on bodies (B) divided by consciousness, which can be multiplied by an infinite number.
Let’s break that down a bit further. Stories are about change, which necessarily involves the passage of time. Time only passes in relation to subjects (bodies). This process is governed by consciousness, which is the narrator. Adding multiple narrators or points of view slows time down.
We steered the conversation toward marketing narratives, asking what from literary storytelling we can apply to our work crafting narratives for businesses. Moody asserted that whether delivering the narrative in the form of a novel or an ad campaign, the same guidelines apply. Stories are about the transformation of people over time, filtered through a particular consciousness or set of conscious perspectives, and we perceive narratives in the realm of marketing campaigns this way, too.
Moody’s visit marked the first of a planned series of author and artist talks at 2A, where we seek to broaden our understanding of storytelling and grow as storytellers. Our office used to be a car dealership and features a comically voluminous freight elevator with the capacity to lift 6000 pounds. We chose this as the setting for the first of a series of artist portraits to commemorate this series. As for a name, we’re calling it 2A’s Elevating Stories series, in a nod to both this fun feature of our building and for the manner by which our visitors raise the bar on storytelling craft.