Reading is the Foundation of Photography. Discuss.

I have always believed in the power of reading as a foundation of learning. I am of course not alone in that belief. I do not confine that reading to the great works, however, I believe in reading everything and anything. The good, the bad and the indifferent.

I recently stated that reading is the foundation to improving a photographer’s work, and that narrative, visual storytelling is an essential aspect of any photographic practice. Someone, responded that they agreed and that reading a specific book on photographic theory had provided him with an epithany. That was good to hear, but it missed the point I was attempting to make.

Someone else commented that perhaps we would be better off without words and that all language should be visual. I could not disagree more.

Another commentator put forward the belief that Neolithic man had no books to read, but still made images so surely we do not need books to inspire our image making. A point of view so far off the mark, I could not respond.

I believe that photographers are visual storytellers whatever area of photography they work in. Storytelling is not confined to documentary practice, it is the foundation of fashion, interiors, art practice, sport, food and every other genre of the medium. The understanding of narrative is essential to storytellers, whether they are documentations, journalists, novelists, filmmakers, songwriters or photographers.

How we choose to understand narrative is a personal decision, but to ignore the narrative practices of others in developing our storytelling ability is short sighted at best.

Through reading we gain knowledge, both practical and enriching. It helps us tell stories and suggests stories to tell. Without that input as photographers we are limited to the internal and stunted by learning that has not developed.

I am well aware of the high number of photographers who have been diagnosed with dyslexia and those who struggle with or do not enjoy reading. However, today that does not have to be an issue. Audio books and podcasts present an easily accessible solution.

Reading or listening to stories develops our empathetic ability, introduces us to new and different ways of seeing, it evidences multiple approaches to narrative structure, pace, and character development. It reveals the importance of research, historical detail and the presentation of subject matter. It is in short the foundation to improving your photography.

Not just photography manuals, or photographic theory but everything and anything. Just as photographers must have an open and generous mind when it comes to what and how they engage with the medium. So, they must be with the narrative form, in all its iterations.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021


  1. The only thing I dislike when you write articles like this, is that I find it hard to comment on them without sounding sycophantic!

    Engagement with all varieties of the narrative form, broadens our awareness and understanding of everything we experience. You once talked in a podcast about “finding” rather than “taking” or “shooting” images, and perhaps exposure to a range of writing enhances our ability to find opportunities. Being “well read” is something that few photographers seem to aspire to; perhaps it should.

    Thanks, as always, for enhancing my breakfast on a Wednesday morning.

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