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Springsteen and storytelling

I fulfilled a long held ambition last week – seeing Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band live in concert. It lived up to all expectations. And then some, in a three hour virtuoso performance.

Shortly after I read David Brooks’ New York Times column on what he took from watching Springsteen in Europe. It contained this pearler:

The oddest moment came midconcert when I looked across the football stadium and saw 56,000 enraptured Spaniards, pumping their fists in the air in fervent unison and bellowing at the top of their lungs, “I was born in the U.S.A.! I was born in the U.S.A.!” Did it occur to them at that moment that, in fact, they were not born in the U.S.A.?

FFS. How do you get paid good money to write that? I doubt European audiences have any trouble recalling their place of birth. Sometimes they just like a good tune.

Brooks then riffs (sic) off this observation to develop a theory of how we need imaginary worlds (‘paracosms’) and how the best imaginary worlds are those based on the local and the power of the particular.

On Open Culture, Dan Colman endorses that interpretation but also adds the idea that Springsteen’s appeal is based on transcendence – “his ability to transcend his own music and embrace the universal spirit of rock ‘n roll.”

I don’t think we should over-intellectualize our personal passions, though Springsteen is very interesting when he talks about creativity and remix culture, something Brooks ignores with his opposition to “pluralism and eclecticism.”

But there is something we can learn about storytelling from this. The opposition of local/global, particular/universal that structures Brooks’ and Coleman’s readings both misses something and inserts too much for my liking.

I think many fans outside of New Jersey identify with Springsteen because the personal and social concerns he writes and sings about. These are points of intersection with the audience, links between us and the narrative, moments of possible identification. They aren’t structured by geography. They reflect recognisable experiences. To develop compelling stories we don’t need to rely (in Brooks’ terms) on the geography of our past, or, in Colman’s formulation, invoke a universal spirit. We just need (and here Brooks’ is right) to have a commitment to be credible and distinct, and offer stories that can connect in one way or another.

And sometimes those connections can be utterly prosaic. After all, when you live through an English summer that produces storms like this, who could not get something from someone singing this:

Photo: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Stadium of Light, Sunderland, June 2012 / David Campbell

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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.