Part Two – Narrative

Project One – Telling a Story

‘Narratives are used in many fields of endeavour where giving an audience a thread to follow or a concept to grasp can be helpful in conveying or examining information in a particular context…In simple terms a narrative generally consists of a beginning, middle and end.’ (Short, 2011, p98). The telling of a story from beginning to end is called linear storytelling.

Eugene Smith’s photo essay, Country Doctor is an example or a linearly narrated story. [accessed 10/06/19].

Eugene Smith, 1948, Country Doctor #3

‘The Country Doctor, shot on assignment for Life Magazine in 1948, documents the everyday life of Dr Ernest Guy Ceriani, a GP tasked with providing 24-hour medical care to over 2,000 people in the small town of Kremmling, in the Rocky Mountains. The story was important at the time for drawing attention to the national shortage of country doctors and the impact of this on remote communities. Today the photo-essay is widely regarded as representing a definitive moment in the history of photojournalism…Central to Smith’s practice was what he described as fading into the wallpaper.’ Dr. Ceriani says of Smith ‘He would always be present. He would always be in the shadows. I would make the introduction and then go about my business as if he were just a doorknob. [accessed 11/06/19].

Magnum photos go on to describe that infusing stories with psychological depth and intricate narrative was unprecedented in photo-essays up to that time. They also note that Smith was infuriated with Time Magazine who laid out the images out of series for the publication.

Bryony Campbell’s Dad Project is also a chronologically structured photo-essay. It shares some characteristics of Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor, for example text accompanies the images and provides context and helps to carry the narrative. The Dad Project undoubtedly is infused with psychological depth and the narrative is also intricate. However, there is no question that Campbell can, did or should have remained invisible during the shooting process. The photo-essay is documenting her father’s cancer and it is accordingly emotionally charged. The Dad Project could be considered reportage (being subjective rather than objective).

Bryony Campbell may mean by “an ending without an end’ that she will continue to reflect on her relationship with her father as she revisits her photographs.

Using Pictures to Tell a Story

‘…Take Robert Frank’s The Americans, for example. It is a superb photographic essay – but it is not narrative in the visual sense. The sequencing of the pictures might have a visual logic but that is very different from a narrative/ idea logic…’ (Hurn & Jay, 1997, p.41).

Extract from course text: ‘Linear picture narratives like those discussed above guide us from a beginning point to an end point which is in line with classical ways of forming narrative. The sequencing of the images is important in ordering the unfolding narrative; we’re guided by the photographer’s intentions. However, there’s an important difference between the picture essay (or story) and a piece of classical prose. A writer will give you the information they want to tell you in a precise order that you, as reader, aren’t in control of (unless you read the back pages first). With picture essays the viewer is to some extent in control of the order in which they view the pictures. Even if the narrative is presented in a book, people tend to flick through and stop at images that particularly catch their attention. Each individual viewer will see different parts of a picture in different ways; some won’t even notice a part that is the primary focus for another. In this sense the photographic narrative is a lot looser than a literary one. Photographers have used this to their advantage whilst creating a cohesive set of images that build upon and strengthen each other. Robert Frank’s The Americans is a very good example of this.

When … creating … narrative (or essay, or story) bear these points in mind and consider how your viewer will ‘read’ your story, namely:

  • Do the pictures have a consistent theme?
  • What elements back up your central theme?
  • What disrupts it?
  • Are there good reasons for this disruption?
  • Do the images have a visual consistency that holds them together as a recognisable set?

Postmodern Narrative

According to the text, postmodernism has challenged the classical ‘rules’ of narrative across genres. Postmodernism (literature) refers to literature written with reduced authorship controls, open ended or ambiguous plots, unresolved endings and reduced use of descriptive language. By this the author encourages the reader to be less passive and put themselves into the story, with their memories and personal histories now playing a more important role.

Barthes believed that this more active approach to reading opened up more possibilities of interpretation and created a more enriching experience.

It has been said that the term became widely overused and was wrongly interpreted as suggesting that technique didn’t matter.

‘Postmodern painting was often characterized by an abstract, or non-representational, approach; works often appeared to be random colours or scribbles without an overriding design or meaning. Postmodern photography takes the same approach, but the medium offers special challenges for the postmodernist. The camera captures a perfect representation of whatever is in front of the lens.

The word “banal” is often used in relation to postmodern photography. Banal means “ordinary” or even “boring.” As traditional photography focuses on subjects that are interesting, unusual, or beautiful, the choice of banal subject matter is an obvious one for postmodern photography. Again, the idea is to challenge the viewer. The artist asks a question or, rather, forces the viewer to ask, if the subject is ordinary or boring, whether the image is still a work of art.’ [accessed 01/07/2019].

An example of a postmodernist photographer is Cindy Sherman (b 1954). She is well known for her series ‘Complete Untitled Film Stills’, a series of 70 black and white images meant to subvert the stereotypes of women in media. [accessed 01/07/2019].

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #14 (1978)

Project Two – Image and Text

Definitions (from the theory of semiotics):

  • Anchor – In news stories the text that accompanies pictures is usually there to control meaning – to stop the image from being interpreted in a manner that isn’t in keeping with the political views of the newspaper, for example. In advertising this type of anchoring text is used to fix the meaning of the image into one clear and distinct message (i.e. why you should buy this product).
  • Relay – In the second definition the text has equal status with the image. Image and text bounce off each other to create a fuller picture that allows for ambiguity and various interpretations. This is more in line with a postmodern view of narrative.

Exercise (Blog)

BBC News – Photo by Encarni Pindado – Mexico, Guatemala Border

Anchor: Migrants regularly cross the porous Guatemala border with Mexico, on their way to find work in the US

Relay: In this we article we follow the trials of the Pesada family as they struggle to find a better life for their family. Up to now they have maintained a frugal existence on the coffee plantations, but ecopolitical and environmental changes have over the years made it harder and harder for them to eke out an existence…

There are many meanings that can be assigned to this image. For example, we can emphasise poor border controls, making Mexico look inept. Or we could emphasise a brutal regime (which may not be true) that effectively forces people to flee. Or we could emphasise poor economic management in Guatemala, or we could suggest that Mexico is encouraging refuges through a pipeline to the US etc.

Research Point

Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself has been described by the Paula Cooper gallery as a “tour de force of feminine responses…executed in a wild range of media.” [accessed 08/07/19].

. The gallery continues “orchestrates a virtual chorus of women’s interpretations and assessments of a breakup letter she received in an email. In photographic portraits, textual analysis, and filmed performances, the show presents a seemingly exhaustive compendium with contributions ranging from a clairvoyant’s response to a scientific study, a children’s fairy-tale to a Talmudic exegesis, among many others. Examining the conditions and possibilities of human emotions, Take Care of Yourself opens up ideas about love and heartache, gender and intimacy, labour and identity. 107 women (including a parrot) from the realms of anthropology, criminology, philosophy, psychiatry, theater, opera, soap opera and beyond each take on this letter, reading and re-reading it, performing it, transforming it, and pursuing the emotions it contains and elicits.”

Duane Michals (b1932) is an American photographer who creates narratives within a series of images. Blending images with text in a format similar to cinematic sequences, his hallmark process is evinced in a group of 9 photographs (with a circular narrative) titled Things are Queer (1972). “I use photography to help me explain my experience to myself,” he reflected. “I believe in the imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” [accessed 09/07/19].

Duane Michals, Things are Queer, 1973
Duane Michals, This Photograph is my Proof, 1967

Without the accompanying text, we would believe that we are seeing a happy relationship with no end. It is the text that implies the end, thus requiring proof of its existence. Choosing to believe that it ended, we choose to accept that it existed in the first place.

Sophie Calle, 5 cents a pound, Take Care of Yourself

Above is the email Calle receives in French, though her exhibition also includes a version in English. In the exhibition the email is juxtaposed with an image of Calle reading the email. One’s eye is meant to be drawn to the image as one reads the text, one adding to the other.

It is hard for me to think of this work as a tour de force as the gallery portrays it. I find myself uninterested in the theme, though respectful of the obvious care and effort that went into the exhibition.

“In 2012 Sophy Rickett began working as Associate Artist at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge. She began an ongoing, cross-disciplinary project initially inspired by some old analogue negatives of the night sky, and her encounters with the scientist who produced them, Dr. Roderick Willstrop, retired fellow of the IoA, and inventor of the Three Mirror Telescope. This camera telescope produced black-and-white negatives of space by using three mirrors instead of the previously practiced use of one or two in other telescopes, to widen the optical path of light entering the lens and therefore increase the detail with which an image can be configured and captured. Rickett has re-visited negatives from 1990/1, the short period during which the telescope exposed analogue negatives before being converted to a device for digital capture and produced new prints that develop the tonal and wider aesthetic qualities of the images… The artist combines a personal account of time spent at the institute – incorporating scientific and vernacular language – with other memories and narrative voices, to give a vivid sense of her experience while considering the nature of collaboration, obsolescent technologies and our relationship to space.” [accessed 08/07/19].

Her own website states that “…Rickett appropriated a number of the now obsolete images, reprinting them by hand using the analogue process and altering them through her own subjective and aesthetic decisions. The resulting works subvert the images’ original scientific purpose and at the same time act as a retrieval, or ‘rescue’ of the archive.” [accessed 08/07/19].

These two pieces reflect a postmodern approach in that the narrative is asynchronous to the images. The story does not need to be understood in a linear fashion; any thread can be followed.

Selecting a Subject

David Hurn (1997, pp.43–44) talks about the difference between a photographer and someone who is interested in photography. He says that the person who becomes a photographer is not interested in photography as an end result but uses photography to pursue an intense interest in something else: “…photography is only a tool, a vehicle, for expressing or transmitting a passion in something else…It comes down to the choice of subject. The photographer must have intense curiosity, not just a passing interest, in the theme of the pictures. This curiosity leads to intense examination, reading, talking, research and many, many failed attempts over a long period of time.”

I do not fully concur with this view. Although we can safely assume all that this would be true “art” photographers, does this apply to professional photographers? Professional photographers are absolutely focussed on end quality and method rather than narrative or the theme. A wedding photographer is not invested in the wedding itself, but the result that his fee depends on. Is then a wedding photographer then only interested in photographer but can’t really call themselves a photographer? I find the statement to be rather derogatory.


I have selected a poem by Spike Milligan. It probably would not be considered high brow, but nevertheless I find it evocative (and mercifully short).

The poem evokes feeling of being abandoned, stranded in a new harsh world, self-pity, pain, heartache, melancholy, tears.

I aim to capture this by taking self-portraits while immersing myself in the feelings listed above.

I could extend this exercise by observing and photographing real people that have been abandoned. This would be a challenging subject but probably powerful.

There must be a wound!

No one can be this hurt

and not bleed.

How could she injure me so?

No marks

No bruise


People say ‘My, you’re looking well’

…..God help me!

She’s mummified me –


Project 3 – Photographing the Unseen


I have had no similar experience to Peter Mansell and therefore cannot relate to his work on a personal level; I can only relate to it on an intellectual level. The same can be said of Dewald Botha’s work.

In contrast, everyone, including me, has had a childhood. Some may have been unusual, good or bad, tragic or inspiring. In my case, I do not remember my childhood fondly, having my fair share of difficulties. I do not remember the area I grew up fondly either; I never reminisce about any positive experiences from my youth. However, I would be able to draw on the negative emotions associated with the area, if I were to carry out a project along the lines of Jodie Taylor’s project.

There is a personal choice to be made, to control the message through the use of images and words, or in a more postmodernist fashion, allowing the viewers to apply their own experience to modify the narrative. I do not mind this loss of authoritative control personally, but if I did, I would knowingly control the narrative to avoid loss of control.


Hurn & Jay, (1997). On Being a Photographer: a Practical Guide. Anacortes, WA: Lenswork Publishing

Short, M, (2011). Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA