I was talking with a photographer recently interviewing me for an article dealing with photography within education. Not just formal education but also self-education and self-initiated learning, it was an easy free-flowing conversation and at one point he raised the issue of visual storytelling within photography.
He stated that I often spoke about creating narrative and storytelling but that he found it one of the hardest concepts to implement. He went on to comment that when speaking with a photographer/photography commentator he had been told that the problem was that photographers create narrative by taking images away, not through construction.
I don’t know where to start with such a comment, it demonstrates such a narrow understanding of how photographers work across a broad spectrum of genres and an unbelievable disrespect for photographers that I find it hard to address such blinkered ignorance. But, the interviewer had taken the comment on board and I therefore felt the need to re-balance this understanding.
To do this I used the metaphor of a writer being given a bag of words and told to throw away the ones they did not like. Those that were left would of course not provide the writer with a story, what they would be left with would be a bag of disconnected words that they liked the look and sound of, not a story. A writer needs to construct words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into chapters, chapters into a narrative, with a beginning middle and end.
Playing with the story form allows the writer to express themselves and progress our understanding of narrative construction. A filmmaker does the same, constructing narrative from scenes and viewpoints. I’m sure we can all remember a film or book that made us re-think our pre-conceived idea of what constitute narrative storytelling. For me it was Christopher Nolan’s 2000 release Memento (see lead image) based on the pitch/novel Memento Mori by Jonathan Nolan. Memento is presented as two different sequences of scenes interspersed during the film: a series in black-and-white that is shown chronologically, and a series of colour sequences shown in reverse order. It plays with narrative and the viewer placing them into the position of the film’s main protagonist. It plays with your pre-conceptions, and I like that. the recent Martin Scorsese ‘documentary’ on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue does a similar thing. It plays with truth, structure and expectation.
The writer and the filmmaker construct narrative, they develop narrative and they evolve narrative from an initial idea/construct/story and so should the photographer. I have written previously about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of this and the links to those articles are at the end of this one. I don’t want to deal with that here, but what I do want to address is this acceptance of the practice of visual storytelling alongside these established creative narrative forms.
The creation of a narrative is no different within photography than it is within writing or filmmaking or for that matter songwriting or poetry. It requires a sense of destination, and a journey towards that destination. Of course that destination may change as the journey takes place but it needs to be there at the beginning. This demands of the storyteller, a period of research, an idea of audience and an empathetic relationship with their characters. None of which can be gained purely through an edit of images.
The edit itself relies on the same factors to ensure that the images chosen establish, progress and conclude the narrative. A narrative demands an objectivity within the edit based on the requirement of the image, it cannot be based upon non-contextual aesthetic decisions.
To suggest that photographers do not understand this and create images on the basis of being able to ‘edit’ a narrative from a random collection of images, loosely based around a subject matter is to dismiss the history of successful photo narratives, that have been so obviously carefully constructed and presented. Narrative has long been intrinsic to the photographic medium and the intellectual engagement it requires has long been understood by photographers. It is not today and has never been based upon ‘luck’ or ‘chance’.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, 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 2019.
© Grant Scott 2019