Telling Stories Through Images

When scrolling through Instagram, do you like a post because of the photo or because of the caption? Or both? For me, I always thought that I liked a post because of the image, and a great written story with it is an added bonus. 

“Instagram is not about photography; it is about visual communication.”

Richard Koci Hernandez, directly quoted from Multimedia Storytelling for Digital Communicators in a Multiplatform World, by Seth Gitner

Well, sure, the image is the driving force, but the written aspect is what brings something full circle. The image of the post should tell the story without words – visually communicating with the audience. When a certain photo draws us in, it’s time to reflect on it. What about it made you stop scrolling, if even for a few seconds? What’s the mood brought forward by the colors, or the subject(s) if any? Where was the photo taken? What was the moment like when the photo was captured?

Then, the written communication brings more context to the image. It’s that person’s true story that relates to the photo which we connected with. The caption could make us, as the viewer, more inspired by the relation, as long as it connects to the visual story. 

This aspect of visual storytelling is what’s called non-dramatic storytelling. The viewer has a chance to make their own connections to a photo before reading why it was posted by its author. Then, the caption brings us to understanding of how it was intended.

Non-dramatic storytelling – an open form of communication which allows participation or interaction to a certain degree.

Bo Bergstrom in The Essentials for Visual Communication

So, the point is that images, stills, graphics – they all tell a visual story. As Andrew Losowsky says it in Visual Storytelling – the essence of visual storytelling is the combination of emotional reaction and narrative information. 

Seven Images and Their Stories

As a part of my own understanding of visual storytelling, I’ve analyzed seven different photos and what they generally say. 

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bal Du Moulin De La Galette, 1876, also known as Dance at the Moulin de la Galette

This painting appears to tell a story about a celebration. If you don’t know what the “La Belle Époque” is, no worries, because Renoir illustrates a perfect vision for us viewers. At first glance, there’s no question that the couple on the dance floor, to the left of the setting are the focal point. Then, it’s easy to move your eyes to the subjects who have a closer depth perception, and to see all of the soft smiling faces. Everyone is dressed in formal clothing, drinking and eating from the possible concession stands in the background, then, of course, dancing. The lighting is shining through the leaves on the trees, so it looks like the evening, as the sun is setting.

While there’s a lot going on within this painting, the background doesn’t distract, it adds to the story. Within the four principles of visual storytelling, this setting is not staged, and feels authentic. From this, it can be presumed that the story is a happy, entertaining party evening outside with family and friends. 

This classic book – The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien has had many different covers throughout the years. This one is the 75h anniversary edition, which takes a more modern approach to the original cover. While more modern, it has also been simplified. Regardless, the many mountains indicate much time spent outside, and quite possibly, a journey through them. The big, bright sun – either setting or rising – also depicts many days going by before reaching a destination, or the climax of the book. With this cover, the story genuinely feels like there are obstacles to be had, which is an aspect of storytelling that keeps the audience wanting more, stated by Bo Berstrum in Essentials of Visual Communication

Continuing with The Hobbit, for my next storytelling analysis, I decided to find a movie still from the first of the three movies – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. While the title of the movie literally says “journey,” what else can I inspect about this still? Bilbo is running, and looks to be quite eager – so he’s excited. The background is a beautiful village that looks happy and peaceful; while to the sides of him show a valley in land mass, so it appears that he’s leaving the village behind. This must be where his journey begins; the starting point of the main story. 

Nike Website

This is the main display image on Nike’s website right now. The caption that follows it states “Stability and Support for Miles.” Simple and to the point, the image shows exactly what the caption intends. These shoes are dirty, which imply that the person wearing them has traveled a long way. It also shows the wearers loyalty to the shoes – so they must be worth buying, right? Out of the four principles of storytelling, this one shows relevancy to the audience. Nike’s audience are mostly those who are athletic, and find necessity behind the quality of their performance wear, so the dedication of the person wearing these shoes is valuable to the audience.

Caribou Coffee Website

Caribou Coffee is a very popular chain particularly in the midwest. In the logo, you can see a coffee bean, with lines. The lines continue onto the upper part of the logo, representing antlers – very likely Caribou antlers. This makes me think that the story behind their brand is warm and welcoming, earthy, and maybe even organic. Logos are an essential part of a brand, because it visually represents it within a single aspect. And like Andrew Losowsky says in Visual Storytelling, more than half of the brain is dedicated to visual input. 

Photos that tell good stories involve many aspects, according to Seth Gitner in Multimedia Storytelling for Digital Communicators in a Multiplatform World. One aspect that Gitner mentions is silhouettes. While he does say that they’re often cliche, they definitely can be used to better tell the story. In this photo, there are three birds by water at sunset, and they look like they’re trying to find dinner. 

This is an iconic photo of Albert Einstein which shows a humorous side to him. One that may feel like it’s a misleading part of his story, but is only what makes this a captivating one. The black and white of the photo, in accompanying his age, makes it known that this was taken a long time ago. His hair looks a little out of sorts, and the tongue-out vibe makes it look like Einstein was having fun at the time this photo was taken. 

When we think about the act of analyzing what we see… It sounds like homework. But we do it all the time, without even realizing. There’s always a story accompanied with a visual, and a lot of the time, we digest it without thinking deeply about it. Which is why some Instagram posts pull us in more than others!


 (2017). Graphic Design Meetup: Design is Storytelling. 

Ayiter, E. (2005). History of Visual Communication. viscomhistory. 

Bergström Bo, & Bergström Bo. (2009). In Essentials of Visual Communication (pp. 14–27). essay, Laurence King. 

DeMere, N. E. (2016, May 11). The Power of Visual Storytelling: 15 Stunning Examples to Inspire You. 

Gitner, S., & Gitner, S. (2016). Chapter 1: In What Ways Do We Think about Visual Storytelling Every Day. In Multimedia Storytelling for Digital Communicators in a Multiplatform World (pp. 1–33). essay, Routledge. 

Klanten, R., & Losowsky, A. (2011). Introduction. In Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language (pp. 1–7). essay, Prestel Pub. 

Lien, J. (2019, November 21). The Four Principles of Visual Storytelling.

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