Julie and I often counsel college and university clients about the powerful storytelling impact of photography, hoping to encourage a greater use of imagery in institutional communications portfolios. We know it can be a challenge in environments with constrained resources. Yet riveting photographs—those that capture an authentic tone and very “real” experience—can create an evocative narrative in an instant, and even build a shared sense of community.
Recently I came across incredibly compelling photography from the Buffalo News that demonstrates the power of investing in images. At a time when most newspapers have gravitated away from print (and cut budgets for special projects), the News put photography front and center in two special sections offered both online and in print: one, an insert highlighting portraits of Buffalo-area Holocaust survivors, and another covering the funeral of a fallen police officer.
In Survivors of the Holocaust, those interviewed shared heart-wrenching recollections as well as the lifelong impact of their horrific experiences. The stories are anchored with photographer Mark Mulville’s intimate portraits of the survivors in their homes. This is not some long-ago historical story, but of the human experience here and now. The effect is a deeply personal one in which the reader can connect with those who suffered, survived and persevered.
Last month, after the death of Buffalo Police Department officer Craig Lehner, the News covered the massive funeral live. The dramatic images captured by Mark Mulville, Derek Gee and Harry Scull, Jr. were quickly formatted into a special section and printed immediately. Then, remarkably, the Buffalo News production team and newsroom staff stood outside the venue to give a copy to each person who attended the service. 12,000 copies were distributed.
This is photography as storytelling and photography as community building. Director of Photography Cathaleen Curtiss told me she has been asked many times if the photo projects were created to fuel the need for social media content. But no, she said, the Buffalo News put photography at the center of these projects in order to tell the story as powerfully and meaningfully as possible, period.
Normally our blog posts feature examples from higher education, since that is the core of our practice. But I think there is much to learn from these Buffalo News projects, ideas that can be applied to college and university storytelling. We often see text-heavy content when a compelling image, caption and brief “word count” would yield a much richer, multi-dimensional story with great impact. Not only can photography create a dynamic narrative, it can tap into a community’s shared values and connective tissue. The images communicate a personal, evocative experience that projects a sense of caring for one another and belonging to one another.
Over time, photography like this—captured moments as life hurtles by—builds a community’s collective memory and honors our collective experience.