A Storyteller’s Journal #2

Phil Hossack

A Storyteller’s Journal….

Notes on where stories come from, ‘inspiration and source’,  ‘what to photograph’ and finding a story to tell and how.

I read recently that Orson Wells said, “the enemy of art, is the absence of limits”. 

There’s an infinitum of interesting things out there, but which one to choose? We’re often stumped not knowing what we want or what actually inspires us. There’s so many ideas it’s hard to see just one.

Anything could work, but first we have to have access to it. It’s simple, but it’s critical.

If you want to photograph Icebergs but in Manitoba access means travel. That may mean a budget which may be beyond our ‘means’. If it’s not and we depart on a magical exotic tour the whole figurative ‘busload’ of us often come away with the same images.

Case in point, there was recently a story on instagram about a Chinese destination where historic scenes and landscapes are re-created for the express use of busloads of photo seeking tourists. Classic images of rural farmers leading oxen to rice paddies wreathed in early morning fog captured by dozens of camera wielding tourists clicking away at what are literaly actors on a stage. Even wreathed in smoke generated by fog machines and scene setting backlights. Bus loads and bus loads, day after day coming to shoot the opera of fake images.

Those quaint rustic images of rural China they faked disappeared over a hundred years ago in real life. The real pictures there are of the tourists lined up four deep on risers pointing cameras at the ‘stage’.

Art imitates life,  imitates art over and over. Actually it’s not that uncommon for us to succumb to the obvious, and capture the routine. Sometimes even pay for the privilege of repetition and ‘un-creativity’ draped in artificial morning fog. Who hasn’t stood on a Caribbean beach shooting frame after frame of a tropical sunset alongside a few other camera wielding tourists.

Same old. Same old.

That said, visiting the exotic and unfamiliar we often respond to the most obvious subjects using the most obvious compositions.  

We don’t photograph them from a  ‘depth of understanding’ or the perspective of a long standing relationship. We knee-jerk our response to the scene and re-capture the exotic ‘tour’ with common place perception garnered from images in magazines, brochures or the vast trash pile of images out there on the web.

Far from ‘Same Old’ here, Five yr old Ethan McDonald hides out in freshly sheared wool next to the shearing floor. It didn’t involve a lt of travel, and I was able to respect safety and social distancing to shoot the annual shearing operations on a family farm in Manitoba during Covid.


In the past year and a half of lockdowns and restricted travel maybe there’s been an opportunity to re-examine how we find and create our visual narratives.  ‘Photograph what we know’ and work within the limits of public safety and health.

This is a good thing, a look inside at how we work to ‘create’ original work.

Contrary to common thought, far flung travel is NOT an easier way to find a subject, it’s more complicated than that.

It’s far too tempting to photograph the obvious subject with the obvious composition and think it’s substantial because we travelled to get somewhere else.

That’s only seduction by the obvious.

Common thought would have us believe it’s difficult to find suitable subjects in our own back yard.  Perhaps that train of thought is more a lack of commitment to explore deeply. To find potential through repeated effort, learning, and by asking deeper questions.

Alternately, it’s very hard to know a place deeply when you’re there only afternoon, a day, a week or two, during a single season….

Think about that, abandoning what we know already intimately for a superficial  ‘one night stand’.  Traveling to China to meet the ‘painted lady’ servicing the hordes.

Having ready access to a subject explored over time is likely to take us on a more satisfying artistic journey in our storytelling.

Now What?

So, here we are, Covid housebound, what to do. 

Recognize the opportunity and  shoot, shoot more and keep shooting!

Use all of those images as a leg up and look beyond the seemingly bland local to a more meaningful set of questions.  Curiosity in action.

Search your exploratory shooting for things that surprise you, things that are different from the rest. The usual at the unusual time or conversely the unusual at the usual time.

Edit, check for details, what changes can create more interest? Focal length, depth of field, perspective.

Time is a tool, as the weather changes, light at different times of the day, or season’s of the year, even as your mood changes. Photography is an intersection of all these things and more.

When exploring the ‘common’ or the ‘near by’ closely ask questions deeply and one is more likely to actually ‘see’ and not just look at the landscape. Our interior landscapes as well. All the various aspects of subject, of environment and our own internal processes that come together and make our art.

Time Tells All.

I love time. The changes over time that are at the root of my internal creative process. Constant evolution, minute by minute, year after year. We edit, twirl and intertwine, break apart and re-assemble. It’s all exploratory and creative work, often coming together in completely unexpected results. 

Such work becomes exceedingly personal and more meaningful. Dare I say ‘spiritual’?

Travel can be done with time, money and health. Meaningful art is a different destination and much more ardious than an email to a travel agent.

However, I’m here talking about the creative process, not to discourage travel and exploration,  internal or external. 

Exotic and distant locals though require a different thought process. Be suspicious of your knee-jerk first reactions to the new places and people.

When we’re in familiar territory we don’t often have those ‘knee-jerk’ responses. The challenge at home is to spark a new response with deeper questions, in new exotic environments sparks fly and may become distraction in themselves.

Pretty sunsets versus cultural awakenings.

Sometimes though you need to get the sunsets out of your system and put behind you on the journey to start seeing beyond the obvious.

In new landscapes, ‘slow way down’!

There’s a tendency to take it all in quickly, time is limited, the tour bus leaves for the next location in 15 minutes.

Sit, soak it up, turn things over and look underneath, otherwise the tour may be the story instead of the destination. Instead of what you actually came to see.

Thinking in terms of the story you want to tell, or the project you’re pursuing helps me focus, whether in my back yard or on an Arctic expanse.

Don’t fall into finding that “One Great Trophy Image’, that compulsory cliche. It may satisfy, but only for a moment and always incompletely. That’s when we stop searching, stop asking questions, and ultimately stop shooting.

Pursuing the storyteller’s art is really learning about ourselves on so many levels as much as learning about the world around us. We each discover our own path, expand our own interiors by exploring the vast exterior of the world around us.

Stay tuned here and find more of these “Storyteller’s Journals’ on my website blog page. www.philhossackphoto.ca/blog/  Sign up and subscribe to get these posts in your inbox. I’ve also got a couple of storytelling workshops on my horizon where I’ll be showcasing my backyard right here in Manitoba, check out the Workshop page too, www.philhossackphoto.ca/workshops/

Have an idea for you’re own workshop? Get in touch we’ll do it together, your backyard or mine.

Incoming…..A White Pelican, rivalling only the California Condor in wingspan settles in to feed in the rich Red River waters at Lockport Provincial Park in Manitoba.

White Pelicans at Lockport Provincial Park were patient with me as I was able to sit socially distanced from them and explore their landscape. Stories everywhere.



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