A Formula to Grow Your Photo-Storytelling Skills
August 25th, 2018 by David LaBelle

One of the cool things about barbershops is the abundance of mirrors and details. In the image, Walden’s Barbershop in Hartville, Ohio, Ray Walsh, 68, in the chair at left, gets a haircut and beard trim from Theresa Walden while her husband, Tony, prepares to work on college student Matthias Miles. Photos by David LaBelle

Each year, I give dozens of assignments designed to help students grow their narrative storytelling skills. I have found one exercise that best challenges and strengthens the skills of beginner documentary photographers: documenting a local barbershop.

Like finding a physical workout to strengthen muscles, this photo assignment helps strengthen observational, listening, interpersonal, organizational, artistic, interpretive and technical skills while building the beginner’s confidence—a key ingredient for successful storytellers.

Success builds success, so it is important for beginners to tackle something they can achieve. Initially, I thought a hair salon would also work, but they have never produced the same results.

Here is why this works:

  • It is a contained spot. A lot of sports photographers are lousy documentary storytellers. They are great at covering a planned event in a self-contained location, but often fail when they have to “find” stories on their own. Researching, talking to strangers, and coming up with a storyline or point of view is not their strength. Like a sporting venue, the barbershop allows the action and interactions to be witnessed and experienced in a pre-determined, self-contained environment.
  • It forces shy, introverted people to work and interact in close spaces. For many of my students with solid technical skills, approaching strangers or speaking in a public forum is a difficult challenge. Those who know me find it hard to believe I was once a terribly shy, insecure young man terrified to speak publicly. But I felt I had important things to say, so I kept facing my fears and stumbling until public speaking became comfortable. Working in close spaces with people you do not know stretches your comfort zone, forcing you to interact with fellow human beings. This requires you to make initial contact to ask permission. Maybe get your hair cut first?
  • It is a place to observe, listen and learn. Sitting quietly, preferably with a notepad, will teach you to observe and listen. This must be done without the destructive distraction of a cellphone or laptop screen. I remember stepping off a plane onto Alaska’s North Slope and feeling I had been dropped on the moon. I was there to photograph wildlife, but saw nothing but spongy, frozen emptiness. As I sat staring and listening, the tundra began to move, and I heard a variety of animals. Many are so blinded by their devices they fail to see the subtle beauty around them. Sitting quietly in a barbershop, you will see important, relevant, storytelling details you have never noticed. Listen. Pay attention to colorful quotes, the cantor or speech, names. First, observe without the camera at your face or eye. Watch, gather and experience the smells and the sounds.

Visit several times, until you and they feel comfortable. The more you show up, the quicker people will quit performing and see you as part of the furniture—and you will feel more comfortable, which will make shooting pictures easier.

Show appreciation to the people who have given you access to them, and their precious time and trust, by offering to give them pictures.

Don’t risk forgetting to follow up or losing business cards or scraps of paper containing their names. Instead, give them your email and put the onus on them to contact you. It is easy to ask for pictures, but many won’t make the effort to follow up. If they do, be sure to deliver. People will judge others and the profession by your actions.

Internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer David LaBelle has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.