What’s the story? Visual narrative made simple

“The pseudo-intellectual makes the error of assuming, that simplicity is the opposite of profundity.”
—Bill Jay, Occams Razor, 1992

In November 2016, I wrote an article titled Why is narrative such a difficult concept for young photographers to master?

I wrote it as a reaction to and reflection on my teaching and lecturing on the importance in understanding how to identify and construct a narrative to the photographer, whatever area of work they are engaged with. Today, as I sit and write the follow-up to that earlier article, the original has been read by more than 56,000 people, a readership far in excess of similar articles I have written. It seems that I hit a nerve.

Over the past 18 months I have continued to teach visual narrative to young photographers and completed writing a book in which I once again address the issue of visual narrative and the development of a personal visual language. I have also made a feature-length documentary film that relies on the successful representation of a man’s life as its central narrative. I therefore think that I may have something to add to my initial thoughts.

The first problem I continue to see in understanding how to create a successful narrative when working with young photographers in particular is the word narrative. It seems to confuse and frustrate those struggling to identify one. I have therefore begun to use the simpler description of ‘story’ instead. Now this may seem to be an unnecessary simplification to some of you reading this and perhaps even a condescending dumbing down of language, but please stay with me on this.

How often do we find ourselves asking others who have read a book or seen a film that we are interested in “what’s the story?” And how many times have we asked, “what’s the narrative?” I think that you will agree that the first of these questions is the most commonly used and heard. I know I certainly use the word ‘story’ when describing the narrative arc of my documentary. If we consider this, then perhaps the use of the word story rather than narrative is a more appropriate one if we wish the idea of visual storytelling to be universally understood.

The idea of the story is one that we are introduced to from our earliest days through bedtime stories. Simple stories that use simple language and images to convey concise and direct emotions and facts. Simple stories that rely upon images as their principle language. This form of visual communication is correctly described as graphicacy, a parallel discipline to literacy and numeracy and the one that is a child’s first learning experience. In a visually intense world, the rise in the importance of developed graphicacy cannot be underestimated and neither can the importance of the visual image as a primary form of communication. Therefore, to simply understand the creation of a visual narrative, the simplest and most obvious example to use is that of the child’s picture book, our first experience of visual language.

If you are still with me on this, I would like to expand on the idea of simplification to aid understanding. My experience of young photographers searching for a story to tell is that they too often overcomplicate their ideas in a belief that complicated is good and simple is bad—

That the more complicated an idea is, the more evidence it presents that they have worked hard in researching the story they want to tell. In doing so, they have often lost sense of the prime ingredient required of an engaging story. Unnecessary detail becomes all, and the idea loses structure and direction. The work loses focus and the photographer becomes dispirited, frustrated with their lack of ability to tell a story. The problem, of course, is that they didn’t have a story to tell despite their research, they had focus on the how, where and what, but had forgotten about the all-important why.

To try and prevent this situation arising, I often use the example of how blockbuster films are often pitched to Hollywood studios. Such pitches can be the epitome of brevity in their storytelling, I’m sure you can guess which films snakes on a plane and cowboys meet spacemen are describing. And it is this simplicity of language and communication of a story idea that I encourage my students to adopt. To focus on the essence of their story by being able to distill the key components of the story into as few words as possible which then becomes the central spine of their image creation.

I also present my students with a set of song lyrics to help focus their minds on finding a title for their story from the very beginning. My love of Bob Dylan and and his image-rich lyrics have meant that I often turn to his work as a starting point for students to explore. This has resulted in projects with titles such as Oh! Mama, From His Teeth, Buried in the Rocks and Planted, amongst many others. Abstract titles for projects that have given the work a sense of purpose having been decided upon at the outset and a focus they may never have come across without a text to mine.

Of course, these are just starting points, and as any story is told it will and should evolve and develop—often into unconsidered areas (and so it should)—but without a starting point, no story can begin. When that starting point has been recognized and established, the process of storytelling becomes subject lead, and decisions that are made as the story is told are suggested by the story itself. The story becomes a series of obvious decisions informed by the story and decided upon by the photographer. The what, where and how will have been resolved by the why and the why is the story itself.

Simple really! Remove the word narrative, refine the story until you are able to describe it in as few words as possible, decide on a title at the beginning and just like those children’s stories of your youth, make sure that you stay true to the story you set out to tell. Follow these simple rules and hopefully there will be no tears before bedtime.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography,
a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book #New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2018.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay will be screened across the UK and the US in 2018.

You can follow Grant on Twitter and on Instagram @UNofPhoto.

Text © Grant Scott 2018


  1. This is a very interesting article to read, as I was a student of yours that didn’t get narrative until you described it as ‘story’, then something clicked and I got it. Mostly anyway. Turns out there’s a few cognitive things I’m dealing with that makes it harder for me to understand certain concepts, especially if I can’t physically see them. But that’s almost a side note really.

    Anyway, in a similar fashion to your point about song lyrics, I put a secret “The Story of…” being deciding the narrative of each series… if it flows properly, then it works. For me anyway.
    The Story of The Cosplayers At Home works better than The Story of Larp for example. One sounds like a story with a narrative, one sounds like a non-fiction information book. Once I managed to realise that the narrative I’d been looking for the whole time was about ‘escapism’, it ends up becoming The Story of The Escapism of Larp (that one beginning with “People and Events”, which yes, was a good starting point to build on, but not what I wanted).

    Obviously, the series themselves are just ‘The Cosplayers at Home’ and ‘The Escapism of Larp’, but putting ‘The Story of…’ before them just really helped me shape the structure of them and the simple stories they need to be.
    ((I think even if I didn’t have to declare my name and email on the comments, you’d know EXACTLY who was commenting right now))

    I still have a slight overthinking problem and the occasional need to make the project sound more complex… thus watering it down. But hey, overthinking is a therapy problem, and I catch myself doing it most times anyway.

    Thank you for the insightful article. It’s good to come back to during those moments of overthinking and being a reminder to slow down and just remember what story I’m telling.

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