Photo Tip: Gesture in Photographs – by Sabrina Henry

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Gesture will always reveal narrative, which light and color alone find it difficult to do. Gesture can tell a story. ~ Jay Maisel

The goal of most photographers is to make pictures that say something about a subject we feel is important. We do this in any number of ways, one of which is using gesture. Gesture is basically body language and in many cases, it is universal. That is why it can be very powerful when used effectively in a photograph.

richmond summer night market

This is an image I made as part of my night market series. It is one of my favourite images from that series. Because of two important gestures within the frame, this picture evokes emotions through implied sound and it tells a story about what it is like to be at the market. The first gesture is the woman to the left of the frame who is calling out to people to try the BBQ squid. The market is a lively place where people are in friendly competition to sell food to hungry visitors. That is an important part of this market and indeed many markets you see around the world. Often sales are made only by engaging with buyers and gesture is necessary to catch their attention especially when there are language barriers. The second gesture is subtler. It is the woman the right of the frame looking at the squid on the grill with her finger at the corner of her mouth. This gesture indicates she is thinking about making a purchase, which effectively completes the narrative within this picture.

Gesture is usually captured in one of two ways: by accident or with a whole of patience. Much of the gesture I see in street photography is often by accident and the narrative is applied only after the picture has been made. If you want to be a good photographer, you cannot rely on this method to create a meaningful narrative. Putting content into your photographs requires understanding what you want to say so that you can recognize it when you see it (or you can create it yourself when you choose to pose people). This picture at the market was made towards the end of my two-year project photographing there. I spent almost every weekend during the summer months getting to know the people who worked at the booths. In this case, Lucy who owned the booth allowed me into her space to photograph from that perspective. I studied how she would go about selling her BBQ squid and we would talk about her competition five stalls down, how a location closer to the entrance would increase sales, and next year she would find a way to be in a better booth and maybe sell other items. I spent weeks making pictures at her stall with her niece who is the one in the picture. After I made this picture, I stopped because I knew I had the one that said everything I wanted to say about her stall. 

One of my favourite images that demonstrates effective storytelling through gesture is from William Albert Allard. It is this picture from his Peru collection on his website, which can also be found in his book Five Decades: A Retrospective on page 104. Again there are a couple of gestures here, the first is of the man putting on his hat but it is that second gesture that makes this picture priceless. The man in the middle of the picture is looking at a thread on the cape being carried by the other man. That attention to detail is part of the show that is bullfighting. The elaborate costumes they wear are decorative while at the same time, they must allow the matadors to move with ease. And if I’m not mistaken, this may be where the expression “dressed to kill” originated.

While gesture is usually attributed to humans or animals, it can also be found in landscape photography. Body language can only be implied in nature but what is the same for us as photographers is the intention of conveying an emotion or feeling through some kind of motion. We see it in the wind blowing through a field of rye or the light rays bursting through the clouds at sunrise or even the way branches on a willow tree reach out and gently touch the grass.

Want to learn how to make stronger pictures using gesture? Sign up for one of our private workshops and we can show you how.

2 thoughts on “Photo Tip: Gesture in Photographs – by Sabrina Henry

    jilske said:
    July 17, 2014 at 11:08 am

    Enjoyed reading this Sabrina (and the pictures!). Composition, light, and color are hard – but still easier to grasp than gesture I find. It is that elusive quality to many images. When I started photographing, I didn’t even pay attention to this. But as I learned, it is much like the difference between hearing a person talk vs listening to them. Seeing vs looking. I like that in the English language attention has to be given and ‘paid’, as it really shows the value of it!

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      sabrina said:
      July 17, 2014 at 10:31 pm

      Thanks Jilske! I agree; gesture is much more difficult to find when photographing because it can be so fleeting. I think that’s why it is so much more common in street photography where it happens by accident. I love your analogy of hearing versus listening and looking versus seeing. Those are important differences that bring photographs up a notch especially in storytelling.

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