Class notes

You undertake you’re gonna have sense of time, it’s gonna have a sense of space things are gonna happening in certain places and you make connection both together……It may will involve a sense of drama.

You have to have I think a sense before you undertake project or as you begin a project about the story you really want to tell.

The point is to understand where those limits are, to understand what you included and what you excluded.

The power of narrative is imaginary.

Narrative offers a feeling of coherence and completeness – a beginning, middle an end.

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Photography and Narrative

In photography, narrative is related to the idea of context. No matter how complete or comprehensive a narrative appears it will always be the product of including some elements and excluding others. Inclusion/exclusion is part of what construction is all about, but knowing what is best included or excluded requires an understanding of context. And an understanding of context requires visual storytellers to be highly proficient researchers. As Stuart Freedman recently declared, we need “a return to a storytelling in photography as rigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution.”

Narratives can be structured in a number of ways, but the classical form is that of the linear narrative – a story with a beginning, middle and end, strong characters and a story arc along which elements of the narrative run.

Narrative stories will also likely have within them the following moments:

  • exposition
  • conflict
  • climax
  • resolution

If one were following this classical structure, then the key stages in structuring a narrative would include:

  • introducing the location
  • giving the story a ‘face’
  • letting people tell their own story
  • contextualizing those stories
  • following a dramatic form

It is vital to stress these are not rules to follow or templates to apply automatically. These are the elements of common and traditional narrative structures. However, whether linear or non-linear (the latter being exemplified by flashbacks, memories and other arrangements of time), whether they have a resolution or are open-ended, narratives can contain the following dimensions:

  • time
  • spatiality
  • dramaturgy (the ‘art of dramatic composition’)
  • causality
  • personification

One of the most important dimensions is that of personification – does there need to be a character who embodies the issue and gives the story a face? Or does potentially reducing everything to a series of portraits cut us off from the context and individualize what might otherwise be regarded as a collective or social issue? Is it the case, as Robert Hariman has argued, that sometimes  “things speak louder than faces.”

For someone developing a visual story, the most important thing to ask is ‘what is the story you really want to tell?’ Answering that can mean working through these questions:

  • what is the issue?
  • what will be the events/moments?
  • if needed, who are the characters?
  • what is the context?

The relationship between story, event and and issue requires knowledge of the context above all else. That demands research because not everything that drives photography is visual.

David Campbell, (2010). Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story? – David Campbell. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Aug. 2015].

what about when photographs are not taken for purely utilitarian functions – such as forensic photographs – and the photographer is trying to tell a story, get across a message, or suggest an emotion within their pictures: can we really ‘read’ photographs, and how are meanings communicated? It may seem unlikely, but we read photographs and other pictures in almost the same way as we read books. In the same way that we learn a vocabulary of words as we grow up, we make visual connections between physical things such as objects, gestures, types of people, and places, and their associated meanings. These things all make up a dictionary of visual language.

The fact that photographs can render such clear and realistic impressions of things makes them excellent devices for communicating messages and describing or suggesting narratives. You probably don’t have to look very far around you to find photographs that have been either set-up, arranged, or taken in a particular way so as to communicate a message – an advertisement on a poster perhaps? Photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Hew Locke, Maxine Hall, have ‘constructed’ photographs, experimenting with objects, poses and locations to explore visual conventions and stereotypes, and our capacity as viewers to form narratives based upon them. Hew Locke’s exotic self-portraits taken posing amongst lavish backgrounds of intense colour and hundreds of objects are an expression of the ‘darker’ side of the artist, and explore ideas about materialism and power.

Visual language is also an important part of photographs that we don’t really associate with being pre-arranged or constructed, such as photojournalism in newspapers, magazines and on the web. Although it is likely that we associate photojournalism with capturing ‘real’ events at the very moment they are happening, a news photographer is constantly making technical choices as to how to encapsulate an event effectively. Following that moment, an editor will most likely select only one image out of many that they feel tells the story appropriately. Their choice will be based upon the visual elements within the picture (subject, pose, gestures etc), selecting the one which contain the message that they want their readers to understand.

The methods of conveying messages using photographs do not always have to be as obvious as those often used in advertising or journalism. Most contemporary documentary photographers do not deal with singular images in the same way that photojournalists do, but are more likely to present people, stories, situations and places using a series of images. Working with a set or sequence of images in a book for example, can allow for a narrative to unfold gradually and more subtly, often requiring an element of consideration from the viewer of the work, and perhaps allowing the viewer to form their own opinions and draw their own conclusions about what the work really communicates. Tobias Zielony’s series Curfew records life for teenagers on housing estates in Bristol and South Wales, upon whom a police curfew has been imposed in order to control anti-social behaviour. Zielony’s series, which was made over a sustained period of time, documents these young people trying to entertain themselves as their 9pm curfew approaches. Zielony’s mix of photographs taken at a distance, and then moving closer into his subjects, have a narrative whereby at first he records their anti-social behaviour, then reveals their vulnerability in closer, more intimate portraits.

Hull, S. (2015). Source Photographic Review: Learning Packages – Documentary & Narrative. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Aug. 2015].

If you were writing a story about a person, you would use words to set them in a context of some sort. In the same way, a good storytelling photo will set a person in their context.

Sometimes including just one or two interesting and relevant background elements can make a stronger photograph than one which includes lots of detail, some of which adds nothing that is relevant to the narrative.

If you have more than one person in your photograph, then think about how you want to express or convey the relationship between them. In street photography, this will happen naturally, as you observe your subjects interacting. But if you have set up the photograph, you’ll need to make decisions about whether the people face each other or face the camera, what they are doing with their hands, and so on.

Bishop, S. (2015). Storytelling Photography. [online] MyPhotoSchool. Available at: [Accessed 16 Aug. 2015].