Tell a story your customers will remember: Ken Kaminesky on creating narrative journeys

Stories are an essential element of creating great experiences. Stories need not be large or long to be memorable: they just need to resonate with the audience in such a way that the person remembers the tale. Businesses that build memorable customer experiences tap into traditional storytelling structures to do so, because the entire customer relationship with a brand is an ongoing series of stories.

He’s shot commercial lifestyle images for stock photography agencies, including Corbis and Jupiterimages. His work has appeared in National Geographic and The New York Times. He’s led photography workshops around the world. And with his latest endeavor, Dream Photo Tours, Kaminesky reminds us that if we want to tell an authentic story, we have to start by listening.

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He finds his inspiration in photographers that join his photo tours, along with the people he meets during his travels. “It’s people. It’s personal. There are so many backgrounds, but we all share the language of photography.” He notes that out of all the workshops he’s led, everyone sticks together. “It’s a tight group and it’s wonderful to see how those relationships develop.”

He rattles off various hesitations that he’s watched people overcome: “They inspire me by conquering their fears, going to some place where they’re perhaps not used to going, or they think is going to be scary or dangerous. Some people have a fear of heights. Some people don’t want to travel alone. This is an opportunity to be with dozens of other people that are immediate friends.” Traveling with others is, for Kaminesky, a “wonderful way to share the experience. We start with one common passion, photography, but then we share all these other incredible experiences with the food, drink, history, culture, the natural beauty. And we celebrate that with each other for years to come after.”

It’s people. It’s personal. There are so many backgrounds, but we all share the language of photography.

It’s these experiences that add to the story behind each of Kaminesky’s photographs. “Everyone approaches photography with the hope of telling a story,” he explains. “The most important stories are the personal ones.”

This philosophy plays into how Kaminesky approaches his subjects and how it influences his editing process. Instead of simply capturing an area, he’s more interested in an idealized, iconic view that pays tribute to a place. “I look at images I’ve shot over the years, and it gives me an opportunity to look back at that moment, and that place in time, the people I shared experiences with, it comes flooding back.” Kaminesky calls it a “mental time machine,” with sights, sounds, smells, and tastes creating a 360-degree sensory experience that tells a much more robust story, sparked by a 2D image.

Because he’s drawn to telling his version of an idealized story, Kaminesky has moved away from including people in his photographs. As he explains it, there was a shift in the story he wanted to tell; focusing on the culture in a place isn’t right for his current flavor of storytelling. But that doesn’t mean he won’t revisit his approach depending on the narrative he wants to create. “You step back in time when you go to a place like Burma. So when I visit there and Vietnam and Cambodia this year, I’ll be looking to capture images with people in them who have an authenticity that can’t be found many other places I travel to.”

Everyone approaches photography with the hope of telling a story; the most important stories are the personal ones.

By way of example, he notes that when he’s running tours in Italy or Iceland, people dress similarly to North Americans. “It takes a bit away from the images.” The juxtaposition of a crowd of tourists in sweats and T-shirts against a cathedral, temple, or mosque backdrop isn’t something that fits with Kaminesky’s goal to make the locations “shine.”

Of course, it’s challenging to photograph iconic landmarks in any country without a crowd of tourists. “For those instances, I’ll wake up at four in the morning before sunrise so I catch first light with no people around,” reveals Kaminesky, also explaining techniques like taking a longer exposure to ghost out people. “It’s an interesting challenge to not add, but remove.”

This editing process is what Kaminesky believes is one of the most important aspects of his work. “Editing allows me to give my interpretation of the scene. It’s a personal thing; everyone is going to see things in a different way. It’s interesting to see how other photographers interpret the same scene I’m photographing, whether at the same moment or sometimes just looking at photographs as I do research on a place.”

Editing allows me to give my interpretation of the scene. It’s a personal thing; everyone is going to see things in a different way.

But while people don’t currently play a prominent role in front of Kaminesky’s camera, they’ve always been behind each shot. They’re the memories that aren’t physically captured on film, but are very much imprinted in Kaminesky’s consciousness, whether it’s his business partners, the photographers on his tours, or the people he meets in a location by chance. “That to me is the most exciting: getting a chance to share experiences with people and keep in touch with them. Sharing experiences makes them more enjoyable. And that creates a beautiful story; each place has that memory, whether for a brief moment or the duration of the trip.”

“I tell everyone on the tours I run that the best photographer in the world is the one having the most fun,” Kaminesky says earnestly. “It’s a fun industry, a fun art form.”

And while Kaminesky puts tremendous effort into planning his shots—scouting locations, angles, times of day, when and where to photograph—being open to spontaneity and willing to break out of your comfort zone is often what gets you the real story you’re craving. Kaminesky learned this the first time he went to Milan. “I met a woman at an airport in Barcelona,” he begins, explaining to her that he was visiting for only a couple of days and was curious as to what he should photograph. “We actually had the person at the ticket counter put us in seats next to each other. She called her husband when we landed and set up a meeting so we could all go together and explore the city. He was a history teacher and proud of the city, and knowledgeable about all the off-the-beaten-path places.” His enthusiasm and appreciation in recounting the story is palpable, much like it surely was for him on that day, years ago.

“The beautiful part about all that,” he continues, “is they took the time to do that for a complete stranger. I met their children, their parents; they took me into their home for lunch. It was just the most perfect Italian experience I could imagine,” concludes Kaminesky, before bringing this one example back to the bigger picture. “That’s what travel and photography can bring you. Both those together are really a way for me to get out of my shell and talk to people. People find photography really interesting, especially when you’re not from where they’re from.” It’s this opportunity that people need to capitalize on to break the ice, have a conversation, and get these genuine experiences.

The end result of any photograph is fascinating to Kaminesky. “There is no real true representation of a location,” he says firmly, refuting photographers that call themselves purists. “I don’t think that exists,” he continues, explaining the various reasons—changing lenses, aperture, shutter speed, time of day—that contribute to an alternate reality. “By changing, enhancing, editing, embellishing, I’m allowing myself to express my vision of place, treating it as homage to place.”

Kaminesky also tells stories via writing, but the processes for him are very distinct. “I’m not so interested in creating photos that are uniquely relevant to what I’m writing or vice versa,” he explains. “Every place, every situation has its own story. I just let life unfold and do my best to remember what the story is.” He compares the relationship between photography and writing with the chicken or egg scenario, “It all begins with the photography … then again, does it really begin with the experiences surrounding the photography?”

Every place, every situation has its own story. I just let life unfold and do my best to remember what the story is.

Right now, Kaminesky’s goal is sharing images that are captivating and spellbinding—the kinds of images that encourage people to want to share experiences with him and his colleagues in new destinations.

And it’s working: people still get together after meeting on one of his tours, taking photography vacations together or sharing their latest news from home—much like we all do with friends and family.

“People on these tours continue to inspire and motivate me. The friendships I’ve made, the experiences we’ve had, encourage me to do this further,” he says emphasizing that the trips he takes are about more than photography. “It’s having the most incredible life experience possible. We have so many wrong notions or know so little about so many places. To see and spend time with local people who can explain, from their perspective, their culture—that inspires me to take images that really represent the full experience.”

Inspired to join one of Ken’s tours? Follow his feeds on Twitter and Facebook.