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:
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:
- dramaturgy (the ‘art of dramatic composition’)
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.