Episode 10 Image

10. Crafting a Narrative with Photogaphy

Every image tells a story, but are you telling stories with your images?

Show Notes

The following artists are mentioned in this episode:

Chris Aluka Berry, "Affrilachia": https://www.alukastorytellingphotography.com/portfolio/G00002bm1OCwPMFA

Kaja Rata, "Kajnikaj": http://lenscratch.com/2020/04/kaja-rata-kajnikaj/

Forest Kelley, "Michael": http://lenscratch.com/2020/04/forest-kelley-michael/

Tabitha Barnard, "Sisterhood Summer": http://lenscratch.com/2019/07/2019-lenscratch-student-prize-tabitha-barnard/


Humans have been sharing stories since time immemorial, by word of mouth, paintings, books, and eventually the camera. Every image tells a story, but are you telling stories with your images?

Hello friends and welcome to this episode of Photo 365, my name is Andrew Haworth.

Today, I’d like to offer up some thoughts and advice regarding narrative photography, photojournalism, and documentary work -- essentially, telling stories with images.

If you missed the last episode of the show, please go back and check it out, because I interviewed documentary photographer Chris Aluka Berry, and he offers up some really great advice on shooting long-form stories. Talking with Chris got me thinking about my own narrative efforts. And the most recent episode of the Hulu show, “Exposure,” was all about photojournalism -- I promise I’m not going to review the show again!

I think we all have some story or narrative in mind when we’re out shooting. Even if it’s subconscious. Visual storytelling, like any other skill, can be learned. Initially, you might create very linear, literal narratives. For instance, maybe a friend asks you to shoot their sister’s wedding. You show up to get photos of people getting dressed, you shoot the ceremony, you take photos at the reception, and end with the happy couple driving off in the end. That’s a straightforward, linear narrative.

But here’s another example. You’re in a field after midnight; it’s dark, and you’re shooting astrophotography, broad, sweeping images of the Milky Way and thousands of stars over the barely visible landscape. Doesn’t sound like a story does it? Well, you’d be wrong. Perhaps the story here is more personal. Maybe these images represent a spiritual connection in some way for you. Maybe you explore that spiritual theme with additional subjects that aren’t related to the stars. In sequencing these images, you eventually create a highly personal narrative that is conceptual, rather than literal. The story is there, but now it’s non-linear, symbolic, and psychological.

Simply put, a narrative is an account of connected events. 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. Whether that is what you choose to include in an image, or how you choose to display those images in sequence.

Think about your favorite movie, book, or television show. How is it structured? The classical form is that of a linear narrative -- a story with a beginning, middle and ending. Along the way, there are strong characters, minor characters, and a story arc that connects them all. Sounds a lot like a wedding right? Even the most banal corporate event will have a narrative structure, complete with heroes and a beginning and end.

The story arc will also contain exposition, conflict, a climax, and a resolution. So, let’s go back to our wedding photography example and apply some of these principles. How would we photograph exposition? Well, these could be shots that set the scene in some way: The bride getting ready, close-ups on rings and flowers, people arriving at the venue, etc. Exposition is another word for “description and explanation”.

Before the ceremony, you’re capturing another portion of the story arc: Conflict. Now, hopefully we’re not talking about fist fights and arguments, or anything like that (although that might make things interesting!) -- but rather the anxiety, the race against the clock, and other micro-dramas that play out when people are under pressure. In literature or film, we’d consider this “rising action.”

Provided everything goes off, the story will reach its climax at the altar when the couple seals the deal with a kiss, and everything from that point on is “falling action.” We eventually come to the resolution, or ending, when the couple -- our protagonists in this tale -- drive off into the sunset.

Again, this is a very literal narrative.

We enact narratives over and over again in every aspect of our life. Not every conflict has to be a life and death struggle of good vs. evil. For instance, I write a script, I record the audio of that script, I publish the audio, and you receive my podcast -- that’s a narrative. It might not be the most compelling, but the elements are there.

So, how do we structure a narrative with a camera? I’m talking specifically about visuals now. I’d encourage you to think about your favorite movies and break down a scene visually, cut-by-cut. You’ll start to see some repetition in the types of shots used: Wide shots, close-ups, medium shots, faces and reactions.

Wide shots set up a scene. They locate characters and setup spacial relationships in the environment. You can also think of these as establishing shots. Again, thinking about film, when a movie shifts to a new location, they often set up the scene with an establishing shot, perhaps a wide outdoor shot of a building. That provides location information and context.

Once we see the characters, they enter a cycle: The characters see something; we see what the character sees; we see the character react to what they have seen. This conceit repeats over and over again, until the end of the film.

We too can follow a similar cycle when creating visual stories. We can introduce a location, using establishing shots. We can introduce a protagonist, or the hero of the story. We can create photographs containing exposition, wide shots, medium shots and detail shots. We can show our hero interacting and reacting to conflict, eventually leading to a narrative climax, and the resolution. Don’t forget to capture moments, emotions, body language and expressions. This is your dialog! Keep pre-production in mind. You can plan ahead: What story are you trying to convey, and what shot list is going to help you get there?

Once you’ve captured a story, you’re only halfway done. Your next step is editing, isolating the images that provide context and assemble your narrative. And this is a skill that can take years to master, but my advice is to go with your instinct, and ask for help from others.

The images you select may not even be the best images from a technical standpoint. Every image should contribute to the overall story, and sometimes you need to “kill your darlings” in service of the narrative.

You may find it helpful to actually print your work at a nice size and physically lay it out so you can see how the images play off each other. Photographs on a computer screen don’t always accurately convey emotional weight. It’s too easy to flip past them quickly without pondering their content.

You shouldn’t be randomly ordering images; you should be sequencing the story. That doesn’t mean the images must come in chronological order. They just need to work together and make sense. Break up the visuals by inserting detail shots between wide shots. Spread out the high impact pieces, begin on an image that sets up the narrative, and finish on a high note that provides resolution.

Study your favorite photographers and examine how they break down their photo stories. For example, look at my last guest’s gallery for his project, Affrilachia. I’ll provide a link in the show notes. While he’s been shooting this series for five years, and probably has many, many more excellent images, he’s narrowed down his selection to images that reinforce his story. Pay attention to the sequencing also. Look at the variety of angles and focal lengths used. Which shots are establishing shots, which ones show conflict, which ones show detail?

These are the elements of traditional narrative structures. But when it comes to narrative photography, there are no rules or templates that you must follow. After all, every image conveys a story in some way.

You may not even need characters or faces in your work. Or maybe your work is nothing but faces, which imply their own narratives.

When 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 some questions:

  • What’s the issue or thesis of your work?
  • What will be the events or moments?
  • Who are the characters?
  • What is the context?

The relationship between these elements is where your narrative will truly begin to take form.

Narratives can be real or imagined. It depends on your style and photographic goals. Maybe you want to explore a traditional narrative style, like a photo essay on a subject you’re passionate about. Or maybe you prefer to stay in the fictional realm, and create your own characters and situations. Maybe your narrative is based on symbolism or implied stories.

The website lenscratch.com mostly features art photographers, and many of them are creating non-traditional narrative work.

Take the work of Polish photographer Kaja Rata, who uses the sky as a metaphor representing a place of escape from the drab reality of her hometown. The work strikes a balance between reality and her own fictional narrative.

Another photographer, Forest Kelley, in his series “Michael,” created a personal story inspired by his uncle. Using photographs from his uncle’s archive, Kelley imagines the history of gay men in rural Massachusetts. The work is part documentary, part speculation, and a re-interpretation of the ephemera left behind by his uncle.

Tabitha Barnard also looked to her family for inspiration in her project “Sisterhood Summer.” The series documents the life of sisters growing up in rural Maine. Barnard uses color, place, and gesture to draw us into the world of emerging womanhood, dripping with fertility and life.

As always, I’ll provide links to these three artists in the show notes.

It’s important to remember that a photographic narrative doesn’t have to be a literal, linear story. After all, we’re producing art, not comic books, or storyboards.

As always, look to the works of other photographers for inspiration. Find artists you connect with and think about what draws you into their work. After you’ve reverse-engineered their style, think about how you can apply what you’ve learned to your own work, but change it to conform to your personal ideals and aesthetic. To quote photographer Josh Rose, “Narrative begins in your imagination, and ends in someone else’s.”