Have Something to Say

“You don’t photograph because you have a camera. You photograph because you have eyes and you have something to say.”  Robert Frank

When I was in Chicago recently I saw this quote on the wall of an exhibit of Robert Frank photos. Even though Robert Frank helped to define the genre of street photography, his ideas on photography are useful across all genres; even toy photography.

I was out with two friends recently for a full days adventure of toy photography (and fishing). I came prepared. In my box of toys, I had many little potential scenes ready to go. I only needed to find the perfect backdrop and lighting.

But some of the stories in my head where mere sketches. We were planning to hangout on a river so I tucked in a mermaid. Per usual, I didn’t have a plan, only a glimmer of an idea for a mountain mermaid photo. I did the same with a boat load of cats. Maybe a photo would find me …or not.

I know I will never change the world with my photography like Robert Frank, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have something to say. My best photographs have stories embedded in the image. Sometimes they’re my stories, sometimes they’re stories the viewer brings to the image. So when I became stuck on an idea I turned to my photo buddy Lawrence Ruelos. You might know him by his Instagram handle Lego_Laws.

If you have not met Law I hope you will get the chance. He’s a talented artist who knows his way around stories and character development. So when I was setting  up my ‘little mermaid’ photo, I didn’t like what I was seeing. It was too bland.

Knowing Law is good with stories and character development, I asked what to do. I then took his idea and came up with this:

Later in the afternoon he saw me struggling with my cats in their rickety little ‘boat’ and he said: “I have another cat if you want one.”

Suddenly the image of three cats lost at see became three cast aways returning home after an adventure.

The lesson I learned from this experience is how one extra piece of LEGO in an image can expand a story from a sketch to a complete thought. It doesn’t take much. A story with depth and a clear message is infinitely more interesting than an image composed with a single figure.

In the future I will remember what Robert Frank says about photography: have something to say. And if I don’t have something to say, I will simply ask Law for help with my stories.

Because everything is better with friends…especially toy photography.


Do you like to tell stories with your photos? Do you like to tell stories with one image or two? If you do, then please consider submitting your idea to our six image narrative series for publication on the blog. 

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  1. brett_wilson

    I love this story. Actually, I love these stories. The story of the castaways and the story of how it came to be.
    Living somewhat isolated from my fellow toy photographers, most of my adventures are solo. But on the occasions that I venture out with the smalls, every idea I had before we left morphs into something new. And it’s usually something better!

  2. Thanks Brett. It wasn’t until I put these images up and saw them together, that I realized they’re multi image stories. Weird how you have to step back to really ‘see’ whats going on.

    Yeah I know Im really lucky to have so many awesome friends to go out and photograph toys with. While you may not have that experience, you do me one better: you get to share this fun hobby with your smalls! I’ve tried with my kids, but they humor me and thats about it.

    Either way its great to have friends / kids to bounce ideas off of. Because you’re right, those ideas only get better!! 🙂

  3. YES! I love this so much, Shelly. I’ve thought the exact same thing about my own style (or what I try to go for, at least) but was never able to put it into words. You did it perfectly.

    I usually try to add something “off” in my images of minifigures. A fearless viking with a teddy bear, a cavewoman with a coffee cup, bigfoot with a camera of his own… One little out-of-place accessory added to a single minifigure can do so much and tell such a deep story.

    The original images you took are beautiful, but once you made those adjustments a whole new world of possibilities opened up for them, rather than them being simple, beautiful photographs. Well done

    • James, thanks of your kind words. I know it is so easy to take a photo a single mini figure; I’ve done it countless times. But once you give them a purpose, a context…the story expands exponentially. It’s not always easy, but I think that the effort makes for a better viewer experience. Keep up with your own awesome work telling stories!

    • Thank you Jennifer. I think you already understand the importance of telling stories. Your work is so full of life! And yes I know how lucky I am to have friends to share this crazy hobby. Not only my family, but acquaintances that I now count as good friends. Maybe its something about the water in the PNW that leads the inhabitants to silliness. 🙂

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