Telling Stories

We’ve talked in the past about the importance of telling stories with your photographs. The underlying story helps to connect with your audience in a way that moves beyond the ‘wow factor’ of a pretty or a technically amazing photo.

To me this is the heart of what we do. We use bits of plastic to tell stories that mean something. Kristina uses her beloved Storm Troopers with wings and teddy bears to tell stories that are meaningful to her. My photos are intensely personal to me and reflect my own deep seated fears, dreams and aspirations. I’ve been clear in the past that my photographs and the stories that I create are for an audience of one. I’m pretty sure that Matt’s stories are a reflection of his own colorful inner monologue. I love that Mike’s photos have a story but he always leaves me a little room that I can bring my own story to his photos.

Toys are perfect for telling stories; they’re so malleable. They can tell their origin story, they can represent larger complex ideas, they can reinvent themselves or they can be our alter egos. I’ve personally seen all of these methods used to great effect, not only within our group, but the larger community as well.

In fact the Instagram toy photo community is full of people who want to tell their personal stories through their toys. Sure these stories run the gamut of funny, silly and derivative but they can also be incredibly revealing and often very personal…if you take the time to listen. These stories reveal marriages, engagements, the birth of a child, the death of a parent, abuse, illness and divorce. These are the stories that make us human.

I’m curious, are you listening as much as you’re telling?

Because no matter how much we want to be great storytellers we also have to be great listeners. There’s as much to be gained from  listening to others stories as by telling our own.

It’s easy to create a snap judgement of someone you’ve never met in person. Social media is famous for fire storms set off by some innocent and usually poorly thought out comment that burns everything in its path. I got a taste of that when I posted about Toy Violence and it’s not pretty. This lesson taught me to take a moment to get to know people and not to rush to judgment. We all make mistakes, we all say stupid things, we all want to be understood and we each want to tell our stories in the manner that best fits our selves.

As our little toy community has grown exponentially, its even more important that we take the time to listen to the stories that are being told. There’re so many engaging people posting photos that may not be the best photographically, but they’re often the most compelling (at least to me).

If you’re following people who aren’t telling you honest and true stories, then I suggest you look around and find the ones that are. More often than not, they’re the smaller feeds, the ones off in the corner doing their own thing.

If you stop and listen, I think you’ll be able to hear them. And in the process I guarantee you’ll become a better photographer, and a better human.

~ Shelly

What kind of stories do you tell with your toys? 

Are you like me, do you like to hear them too?

Injured Chima horizontal WM
Damaged goods


  1. Great post, Shelly. My favourite people on Instagram are those who are able to incorporate a story into their photos – something I’m being more mindful of.

    Two of my favourite storytellers are @legojacker, who mixes his photography and comment to speak what he’s passionate about. Right now his profile description is “I speak plastic” – love it. The other is Keith Yip (@castleinthepool) and his “little man and his pet frog” photos. His styling is so consistent and he’s able to capture a whole tale within his minimal shots. I recommend followin both of them.

    Recently I posted a photo I wasn’t happy with – particularly with the narrative. After Matt’s last blog post I was really interested to see if we could start some discussion about why we don’t like our photos and ask for suggestions and feedback from the community. I was surprised at the response and how people shared their own take on the story embedded in the photo. It was encouraging to see how people could take a photo I was going to scrap and give it meaning

    • Thank you Ben! Yes Kan and Keith are two of my long time photo buddies on IG. Its been gratifying to watch them both grow as photographers and find their unique ‘voice’ through our little plastic friends. Im glad you find them both!

      I think thats awesome that you are trying torch out to your community and start a conversation beyond, “hey I like this one”. Anytime we can offer a reason we like photo, lighting, story, set, up, composition, location, gives the photographer information with which to move forward. I like what you are doing and I will definitely check it out!

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. aliceincleveland

    I am horrible in finding the meaning in art. Not just toy photography, but in all forms of art. Classical paintings, photography, poems (shudder), modern dance (double shudder)… Teeeeeeeeeeeeerrible. At. It. And it is a little funny to me because one of my favorite things to do is paint miniatures and I always keep in mind that as long as my miniature has a story, a reason behind its existence, the paint scheme will make sense. The logic is lacking. It’s like saying if you eat apples, you’ll be good in business. It’s infuriating because people come to my house and I have my best paint jobs displayed and they see them and they look at me and I know they don’t see the story.

    And half of me cries out, “WHY DON’T YOU SEE MY SOUL.”

    And the other half of me is brushing my teeth before bed, standing at the top of my stairs, looking down on the tiny souls I have brought forth from the Void and whispering, “It doesn’t matter that they don’t see, because it’s not their story.”

    And I realize that painting, like photographing, is about bringing my stories to life, for me. Sometimes, that is going to be a shared experience someone else had and sometimes, arguably most of the time, it won’t. That’s why I’m bad at finding the meaning in other works, because I’m always looking for how I shared that experience with someone. So thinking back to the classical artist… The painters, the sculptors… Life is completely different now and that makes shared experience hard to come by. Themes translate and transcend, sure, but the everyday living is completely different.

    Oddly enough I find a lot of meaning in the photo accompanying this post. I have relevant shared experience with what I think you are saying with it. I can feel this photo in real life. Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus though? Yeah, completely lost. Love it, no idea what the meaning is.

    • You bring up so many great points here its hard to know where to begin. I can’t agree with you more on most of this. What we brig to the table is often over looked by our viewers, but i’ve found if you stop and listen, very carefully you can hear what the artist is saying. You have to be patient, you have to educate your self and most importably you have to take the time. It’s not easy to be an educated and informed viewer, but i’m hoping that others will find it as rewarding as I do. When Kristina called for us to view other art for inspiration, this was also her way of encouraging us to better educated viewers.

      We may not have the shared experiences that the painters and sculptors of the renaissance had, but we do have a shared culture of pop culture. Also since we are all communicating through toys, it doesn’t take a great leap to understand our compatriots.

      Im glad you found some relevance in my little image. I think we are all a little damaged. Its easy to see it when its obvious like a broken foot, its harder when its inside. I’ve always felt that great art comes from people who are trying to work out that pain in their creations. That is the art I’m drawn to the most.

      Now are you sure i can’t persuade you to come to Seattle in May? Because I would love to sit down with you and Kristina and take a deep dive down this type of rabbit hole together. 😀

      • aliceincleveland

        Hm. I’d love to go to Seattle again but it’s most likely not going to happen. Already planned out most of my traveling for this year!

        There is one line in your post I feel inclined to dig deeper into though. You say, ‘Also since we are all communicating through toys, it doesn’t take a great leap to understand our compatriots.’ My immediate reaction to this is that I disagree, a lot, but not enough that I would say I couldn’t disagree more. I do disagree though.

        I would point to the blog, your blog, your collective to emphasize my disagreement. Did you form together simply because you all share a passion for toy photography? Was it that simple? When you see one of Avanaut’s photos, a photographer you once wondered if you could share space with, is it a hop or a leap that you take to listen? (This is unknown water for me because I don’t know any of you well so please correct me if I’m wrong.) I suspect that you all formed together out of an interest in digging past the simple common communication of toys with each other (first) and the community (second). How far have each of you have come into your listening of each other?

        The common language of toy, you are right, is simple. I do it, you do it, we share that and so we perceive a connection.

        But your core collective isn’t everybody that does toy photography is it? The musings are open to everybody, but the ‘about us’ tab is a select group. So what made all of you interested enough to form the core?

        … That’s where I disagree with your statement, because that connection does take a great leap to understand each other even with our common toy language.

        It takes, like you said, work to listen to the arts. It takes work because we are all vastly different and interesting or not interesting or fascinating or ethereal or rude or kind or full of ourselves or humble or winging it or working through it or whatever else we are doing. We are snapshots at any one given point in time and you may only know us by viewing the body of our work, which is work and which takes time and takes a huge leap. I think. That’s how it is for me. Process varies by user.

        If the language really was that common, I don’t think all that would be necessary.

        That was as deeper rabbit hole than I started with.

        Until we disagree again!

        • Actually we don’t disagree. One line carelessly thrown out in a blog post gets me what I deserve.

          I don’t think we here, who make up the core of the stuckinplastic community, are any closer to knowing each other now than when we started, in some cases we are even farther apart. In fact we spent the better part of several months hashing out a manifesto. When the blog was Boris, Mike, Vesa and myself it went no where. Then Kristina stepped in and gave us the framework to create something. There is still disagreement as to who and what we are. There was very little agreement beyond “we shoot plastic”. We never decided if the toys were alive or dead, or even what kind of photographers we where. We certainly never came up with an end game. If we can’t listen to each other, how can we listen to anyone else?

          You’re absolutely right when you say “process varies by user”. If I perceive a photographer is really putting forth an effort to communicate with me, certainly I will respond in kind. But if they’re one of the many simply putting up random photos, they I will be less inclined to look and listen to what they have to say.

          As for the blog, most anyone can write for the blog. Many moons ago we reserved Fridays for anyone from the community to fill. Now I simply publish guest posts when I have them. If you would like to publish another post here, might I suggest you tell us why you shoot toys?

          It’s always a pleasure to be taken to task by you!

          • aliceincleveland

            You should never consider it being a task taken to but simply a conversation of ideas (but don’t be careless with your words!!!). Even if it’s not how you feel, you know that particular idea exists out in the world somewhere. The fact that it exists, even if it’s outside of toy photography, is reason enough to talk about it!

            I was a little surprised to read about the state of the group past, “we shoot plastic.”

            “There is still disagreement as to who and what we are. There was very little agreement beyond “we shoot plastic”. We never decided if the toys were alive or dead, or even what kind of photographers we where. We certainly never came up with an end game. If we can’t listen to each other, how can we listen to anyone else?”

            This certainly puts an image in my mind of the five of you sitting on a raft, floating ever away from the shore, perhaps with a single lantern piercing the overwhelming cover of night

            I bet if you each went back and read each other’s post from start to finish you would realize you know (have listened) to each other far more than you realize.

            The rest of it is the nature of things I would suppose. Perhaps those questions are not questions that have final answers. Are toys alive? Only so much as we bring them to life. What kind of photographers are we? The kind with cameras. Again, the answers are in the bodies of works which, as far as I can tell, we seem intent on continuing.

            I did note though that you referred to an end game and I think that’s interesting because it is not the first time it has come up recently. It would appear that thinking about the end game is something on the collective toy photographer mind which confuses me in a hobby where everyone seems so intent to do it forever. Perhaps in my literalness something is escaping me. If you (not you specifically though) aren’t doing it for money, or for fame, or any reason other than love or passion or fun or knowledge, what is with the concern for the end game?

            You’ve allowed me the opportunity to share why I shoot toys, essentially, why am I here? I’ll certainly think about that and how to put that into words, but honestly, I’m not sure I know. I suspect that’s why I’m here, to potentially figure out why I’m here. I wasn’t excluding my own work when I said I was terrible at finding meaning.

            Why am I here? I don’t know. Why are you, all of you, here?

          • Alice, I like the image of the five of us (why five? I count six) on a raft floating out in the darkness. I promise I won’t be careless with my words, or if I am, I will be better prepared to defend them.

            Hobbies have a way or morphing into something else and that’s what happened to me. The doors keep opening, I keep walking through them farther down a road I didn’t even know existed. This is not my first body of work as an artist. I was unable to reach goals I had set for myself with that earlier work. I’m hoping to change that with this new stage of my artistic career.

            I don’t know what brought you here, but I’m glad you’re here. Maybe we can answer those questions together. xo

  3. actiotos

    My shots are aimed to replace the human position with a Lego Minifigure.
    To do this I prefer to shot at outdoor because in this way, my toys can enter in contact with the nature, with our world, and live a free life, without rules.
    We give them life, emotions and with our imagination they can do everything, because there are not rules and barriers.
    With it we can go over our real situation and we reflect on them our idea of a different world.

    • You and are I not so very different. I also want to free my mini figure friends into a world that is free from their plastic origins. I want the world they live in to be a better world than the world we live in. Thanks for joining the discussion! 😀

  4. Stefan K

    There are times when I have a story behind the shot, yes. But reading your post I begin to wonder if some of my shot are talking to me instead. I have started to see one of my minifigs more and more, the female photographer. Perhaps our photos are talking to us if we start to listen. I’ll sure will try to listen more to peoples photos then I have before. Thank you for a good post 🙂
    Stefan K

    • Stefan, per usual you bring up a good point. I think our photos do talk to us, our subconscious can’t help but play a part in the choices we make and the photos we produce. I think that being still and listening to our selves is another skill we often don’t practice. Reflection in all its forms can only lead to better results. 😀

  5. Jess

    Great write up. I am terrible in finding or trying to inject meaning into my work. I remember overhearing what someone got from a photo in my first show and I just burst out with uncontrollable laughter at how disconnected their interpretation was from the reality of why the photo was taken or what it meant (forgive me, I was 15 or 16).
    I do enjoy the creative stories that go along with some IGers, but I’m still stuck in the “shallow” it just looks pretty world with my own shots.

    • Jess there is room for both. I think its arrogant to think every photo should reach for a deeper meaning. Sometime a photo is just a photo! I’ve also had that same experience. Listing to people talk about your work can be fascinating. They will always find a different interpretation, find meaning where there wasn’t any intentionally. This is also mark of a great photo; one that is open ended enough that the viewer can see themselves in it. Thank you for participating in the conversation!

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