Narrative in photography

A narrative is defined as a ‘spoken or written account of connected events’ but a definition I find to be inclusive of all creations is Naom Chomsky’s, who says: “Narrative is a fundamental aspect of human existence – we need stories with recognisable structures to make sense of and describe human life.” This allows us to recognise the importance of narrative in every thing we see, watch and read.

Without a narrative a written story would have no meaning. If there was no structure to what you were reading there would be no point reading it because you wouldn’t arrive at an overall thought or conclusion. This is the same with photography; art photography and journalistic photography.

Soldiers attack young catholic stone throwers in Northern Ireland in 1971.
Don McCullin, 1971

I first came across Don McCullin’s work in A level Photography. When I first saw this image I knew McCullin was a war photographer but little else about him or his photography. From a first glimpse at this image I am able to pull a narrative as though I am reading a short story.

A narrative has two components, story and discourse. The story is what happens to who, where that happens and why. The discourse is how the story is told; from what point of view, the structure and the style. In terms of the story I can tell there are soldiers running towards an incident and there are locals looking on from their door ways. From the discourse I can draw that the photographer has taken a neutral position on the story and made sure to include both the locals and the soldiers to highlight the reality of the situation. As for why the situation is unfolding and to be sure of the narrators angle on the story it is important to know context.

A narrative, whatever form it is found in; writing, photographic, drawing, is constructed by the narrator. David Campbell, Director of Communications and Engagement at the World Press Photo Foundation presented this idea with an 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.”

With this in mind I think photographs can have a constantly changing narrative as cultures and connotations change with time and the narrative can also differ from person to person based on contextual understanding and personal perception.

Roland Barthes coined the term ‘text of pleasure’ in 1978. A text of pleasure is a story with a satisfactory beginning, middle and end. Opposite to this is a text of bliss which has a fractured structure and ends ambiguously.

With photography being so open to changing narratives I think the way I capture my images, place them in the text and the surrounding information is going to be very important in conveying the narrative I want readers to take on board. It is also going to be important to first decided whether I want to create a text of pleasure or a text of bliss as this will decide how I construct the images and how much narrative I offer to readers in the images without any accompanying text.

Since I am doing my project on skateboarding’s controversial admittance to the Olympics I will want to make sure I am photographing scenes where with accompanying text I can relay a text of pleasure. I may, however, include some images that can be constituted as a text of bliss as I want my audience to sometimes question themselves.



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