The Stories We Tell

I have always believed that we learn about each other and, perhaps more importantly, ourselves, from stories. This belief was reinforced a few weeks ago when I had the good fortune to attend two multi-session programs, “iPhoneography” and “Writing From – and for – Your Life,” at Rancho la Puerta. A week at this spa was my gift to myself as I transition from college president to leadership coach and consultant. The programs were an unexpected bonus.

I have been eager to take an iPhoneography course for several years, but could never fit it into my schedule.  So, when I arrived at the Ranch and saw these sessions on the schedule, I built my days around them. And, in part because the writing sessions were immediately following, I stayed to see what they were about. Perhaps they would help me with my weekly blog.

Although Yoni Mayeri, the iPhoneagrapher, and Dean Nelson, the writer, had not coordinated their sessions, to me they were two sides of a coin. Each spoke about “re-creating” an experience through art. Both advised the novices to use what they know. Yoni said, “shoot what you love.” Dean said “write about what brings you joy, or what enrages you. “

So much of what Dean said about stories could apply equally to photographs:

            They make the invisible, visible

            They bear witness to the miracles

He said that writing gives us the opportunity to experience life twice, the first time when we live it and the second when we “artfully re-create it.” Of course, the second time will be a different version of the first. It is never an exact recreation, because we leave something out or emphasize what was meaningful to us. Someone else who was part of the same experience might not even recognize it. Dean shared a story he wrote about an anniversary trip he and his wife almost didn’t get to take because he had forgotten to renew his passport. As he was writing it became a story about his wife’s grace and forgiveness. Her version might have been different.

Yoni’s sessions were primarily about editing. The original choice of what to shoot, where to stand, how close to be and where to focus starts to create a personal version of the experience. The editing “re-creates” through cropping, coloring, blurring, and other techniques. Ansel Adams said, “you don’t take a picture, you make a picture.” Often, I liked the original version of one of Yoni’s pictures better than the one she edited, but neither is any more “real.” They were all based on her unique perspective.

I spent several hours around the ranch shooting pictures, and realized that my own style was emerging as it had many years ago when I took dark room photography. At the end of that semester we had to hang our pictures for a critique and even though they were scattered around the room, mine were clearly recognizable as being done by the same person. I am drawn to patterns and architectural details. When others might shoot a palm tree, I zoom in on the bark. Instead of blossoms on a tree I shoot them as they have fallen on the ground.


I loved discovering the iPhone apps for editing. The thumbnail accompanying this post is 4 versions of a picture I took of some tree branches. I have only just begun this exciting adventure and look forward to “re-creating” the things I see.

As Dean said about a good story, a good picture “complicates” our thinking.  On a visit to Mass MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) I told a docent I hated an exhibit. She said the important thing was to engage with the art. I’m not sure I want to spend my limited time engaging with art I don’t like, but it certainly stretches my thinking in ways that often apply to other aspects of my life.

As a leader, I know that stories are critical to understanding a culture. I have readily shared my own stories to break down barriers between “the President” and students and employees. I have also cultivated being able to retell stories in a way that reveals the wisdom even the tellers had not realized was containedwithin them. We live in an era of “data driven decision making.” But data alone is not convincing. It is stories – in words and pictures - that connect and inspire us.

Barbara ViniarComment