Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story?


In telling visual stories about the world, photography is narrating the world. Of course, narrative is something that is far larger than photography. Social communication is one of the defining characteristics of being human, and narrative stories have long been a common and powerful mode for transmitting information. As such, there is much we can learn from the likes of anthropology, history and literary theory.

Here I want to lay out some of the points I discussed yesterday in a lecture to Jonathan Worth’s innovative class on photography and narrative at Coventry (you can listen to the lecture via the #Phonar Soundcloud site – it draws on recent presentations to the IOPF multimedia workshop in Changsha and the MA/International Multimedia Journalism program in Beijing).

A narrative is an account of connected events. To think about narrative, however, involves more than reflecting on how a series of events become connected. We also need to think about how something is constituted as an event in the first place. Events are not found objects waiting to be discovered. As Allen Feldman has stated “the event is not what happens. The event is that which can be narrated” (p. 14).

This means a narrative constructs the very events it connects. For example, when people stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789, they did not understand themselves to be taking part in the first day of an event already known as ‘the French Revolution’. The idea of the French Revolution was the product of historical and political narratives looking back on particular happenings, connecting them in specific ways.

Narratives are not found objects either. They have to be constructed by participants and observers, actors and analysts. Recognising narratives as constructions does not mean anything goes or that anybody can make anything up. It does mean that we cannot escape the clash of interpretations, and that simple-minded appeals to ‘the facts’, ‘objectivity’ or ‘the truth’ are themselves narrative claims that have to be argued and justified.

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.

Featured photo: kevindooley/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

43 Responses to “Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story?”

  1. David Campbell Talk, « Camilleperrette's Blog

    […] David Campbell was at the Coventry University on november 17th. A sum-up of his talk can be found here. What do I think ? ” What is the story you really want to tell?” This […]

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  3. Kyle Grayson

    Hi David,

    Great post. Especially in the contemporary mediascape, it strikes me that being more aware–and reflexive–about how narrative shapes the identification and reception of denotative and connotative aspects of a photograph (or visual artefact) is an important point. The quaint assumption that these media simply speak for themselves is certainly no longer tenable–if it ever was.

    Two other elements strike me as being central to the construction of narrative. The first–borrowing from Feldman–is that an event is always emplotted, not just in relation to other events (past, present, forthcoming), but also in terms of moral codes, cultural frames of reference, and discourses that also shape what can be told and how this narrative might be understood by audiences.

    The second is how any narrative contains points where aesthetically important decisions are made–and not always by the story-teller–that enable a politics of affect. This seems particularly important with visual media. Photographic conventions, technological innovations (and limitations), and seemingly ‘unimportant’ choices made by those being filmed/photographed (e.g., dress, camera awareness) may all play an important role in how a narrative gets interpreted and understood.

    Thus, your conclusion about the necessity of research is a very important one indeed.

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  10. Maplemusketeer

    I’m so glad to have found your website. Much to ponder and dwell upon while I drink my tea :)

    Thank you for helping expand my understanding just a little bit more

  11. Dan Macarandang

    I downloaded the audio podcast. Thank you!

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  15. Ruby Blackthorn

    I am a 2nd year University photography student and I have just been given the project Narrative. This post has given me food for thought, and I wanted to say thank you for posting this. For the project we have to create 2 pieces of work, 1 digital format and the 2nd in publication format as well as a RDB and a blog. Your post has given me something good to go on from, thank you.


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  23. Rob Godden

    As always an insightful and useful post. Within the context of contemporary documentary photographic practice, what impact do you think moving from single professionally authored work to multi-authored user generated work would have on narrative?

    • David Campbell

      Thanks Rob. Yes, it would have an impact, but not an automatic one. By that I mean multiple authors could contribute to a single narrative, or they could bring diverse perspectives and create a multi-layered, multi-faceted narrative. Which one of the two it was would be the result of specific decisions on how to construct the narrative.

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