Photography With Character

There’s a stylistic writing principle that says you should try to put characters in the subjects of your sentences. A character is a subject that can do something, like slam a door.

Jessie slammed the door.

Non-character subjects just sit around until someone more interesting comes along.

The door was slammed by Jessie.

The cool part about this is that characterhood is not an intrinsic quality. People aren’t always characters. Objects aren’t always non-characters. Characterhood is decided by the sentence, not the subject.* In other words, doors can do things, too.

The door slammed in Jackie’s face. 

Jackie got hit by the door. 

What I’m realizing as I take more photos is that characters can also spice up photography. There’s the subject that sits around in the frame, and there’s the subject that looks out at you and says something.

Just like in writing, characters in photography are not born but created. To find the character, you have to restructure the sentence. You have to recompose the photo.

turtle collection

When I lined up this photo, I figured the metal turtle would make a good subject (and focal point) because he’s shiny. But in the end, this mostly just looks like a row of turtles.

Then I noticed this guy.

turtle collection

This turtle isn’t shiny or glassy, but he peers out of the photo like he’s wondering why I’m still standing there. He’s doing something. To me, this is a much more interesting photo.

Here, I thought the penny would make a statement about how tiny the train is.

toy train

But the penny in the photo doesn’t seem to say much of anything, and the train just sits there, stuck. So I nixed the penny and focused on the train. And…

toy train

Oh dear, sighs the little caboose, I’ve got such a long way to go.

* I’m simplifying a bit here. My old Style professor would point out that characters are always characters in that they have the potential to do things, even if they’re hidden in another piece of the sentence or part of speech. But since this isn’t meant to be an essay on style, I’m using “character” here to refer to properly utilized characters who actually carry out their actions in their sentences – or in their photographs.


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