‘Show, Don’t Tell’ for Photography and Tragedy

Anyone who’s ever taken a creative writing course or attended a workshop, writer’s group, seminar, etc., has no doubt heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell”. It’s an admonition that writing should be expressive rather than obvious. The idea being that it makes for better writing to, say, describe someone having to control their tone of voice while they speak, rather than your just writing, “She was angry.” That may not be the best example but I am more photographer than writer. Hopefully you still get the picture.

Speaking of getting the picture- I’m of the opinion that the above writing advice applies to photography and photographers as well. Of course it’s not a straight-across parallel. Virtually any photojournalism is necessarily going to be suggesting a narrative it- I’m referring specifically to telling a story more subtly (and often more powerfully) when discretion is necessary or strongly advised. This can be a necessity with an editor concerned about offending a readership, when a publication has a younger audience or for whatever reason graphic imagery is ill-advised. It can also serve as a poignant tool for retrospectives.

Consider the example of perhaps the most poignant subject, war :

While the images of young Phan Thi Kim Phuc running down a Vietnamese road, having been badly burnt by napalm, some of the world’s most powerful conflict images are perfectly acceptable for all-age consideration. The iconic photo of the six soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima is arguably the most recognizable photo from WWII. And maybe it’s just me but as horrifying as the images from the concentration camps are, something about that level of death and anguish can be both disturbing and overwhelming. I’m still deeply affected by the universally-familiar portrait of a sweetly-smiling Anne Frank.

Anne Frank

That personalizes it for people. A shot of an empty helmet on a battered beach brings home how personal war becomes for every person that’s involved and everyone who knows them. The same thing goes for photos of Civil Rights violations, great natural or manmade disasters or catastrophe’s like the Boston Marathon bombings.

Boston Marathon Bombing

Boston Marathon Bombing By hahatango

Battles, the explosions of terrorists’ bombs, great fires, floods, tsunamis and devastating earthquakes are disturbing to encounter but more often than not someone doesn’t really personally identify with something like that. It’s how we’re wired- if those things haven’t happened to us they seem like unfortunate abstractions. But everybody can sympathize or at least empathize with the loneliness, pain and loss suggested by the image of a single person or something representing that person’s loss.


The picture of a man holding a bloody American flag from a victim of the Boston bombings, as cliché as that image should have been, was more disturbing and thought-provoking (again, for me at least) than the broader images of destruction. I think it’s because I’ve never been involved in a bombing (thank goodness) so I have no frame of reference for it. However, the anger and pain visible on the face of the man with the flag is something I can certainly understand.