On becoming a visual storyteller

It’s mid-March here in New Hampshire, which means several things: spring skiing, mud and town meeting — a centuries old form of direct democracy where eligible voters in a community gather annually to decide public matters. Should the town mandate recycling? Give the teachers a raise? Buy a new wing plow for the highway department?

It’s fantastic — especially if there’s a bake sale in the lobby.

I long ago lost track of the number of town meetings I’ve covered, but this was the first year I thought to document any part of the experience with photos. (My former colleagues in the Concord Monitor’s photo department, on the other hand, take town meeting visuals seriously.) But on Saturday morning, as I sat in the back corner of a sunny community center, I noticed how the light touched the pinstriped curtains on the voting booths. It was simple, beautiful and iconic.

Here’s the picture I took with my iPhone, toned up a bit with Instagram:

Road repair was the big issues at the 2013 town meeting in Northfield, NH. Photo/Meg Heckman
Road repair was the big issue at the 2013 town meeting in Northfield, NH. Photo/Meg Heckman

In the year since I joined Instagram, I’ve learned to see photos in my daily life. It grounds me, helps me notice details and write with a sense of place.  Sometimes I’ll take a picture of an item I want to describe in words later on or share a moment on Twitter or Facebook like something out of a visual reporter’s notebook. It’s immediate, provisional and accessible.

This kind of thinking is crucial to modern journalism. As this piece on Poynter.org points out, “the web is a visual medium.”

It didn’t start that way, back when HTML truly was all about marking up text. Over the years, though, the options for shaping the appearance of a Web page have grown more plentiful and sophisticated.

Now, of course, Web producers have a wide range of design tools at their disposal. Color, typography, imagery, positioning and many more design elements can be tuned to exacting detail. Emerging technologies like CSS3 and HTML5 make it easy to implement these visual ideas.

In the right hands, an array of design choices can produce impressive results. Misapplied, they can create a visual cacophony.

Effectively using visual elements has been a challenge as I’ve evolved from writer to post-platform storyteller, but so worth the effort. I love the idea of grabbing whatever tool will best tell a story organically. Pen and notebook. DSLR camera. iPhone. Sound kit. Data visualization software. All of the above — or something we have yet to imagine.

It’s an overwhelming prospect at first, but, done right, one that allows us to create the kind of narratives in which, as Ken Burns says, one plus one equals three.

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