In a world full of events, photography has been narrating them for as long as anyone can remember. However, narrative is far more vast than photography. Cultural communication is one of the defining characteristics of being human, and stories have long been the most powerful mode for transmitting information. Narratives affect people in many different ways and continue to define us as it is so closely linked with our identity and the way we have grown the understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This being said, as something non-verbal in nature, can photography create a narrative and in turn tell a story? To fully unpack this we need to define the very notion of ‘narrative.’
A narrative is an account of connected events. To think about narrative, however, involves more than reflecting on how a series of events become connected. We also need to think about how something is constituted as an event in the first place. Events are not found objects waiting to be discovered and therefore an event is not what has happened but rather what can be narrated.
This means a narrative constructs the very events it connects. Narratives are not found objects either. They have to be constructed by participants and observers but, recognising narratives as constructions allows the storyteller to begin having a little bit of fun with the series of events themselves.
In photography, narrative is related to the idea of context. No matter how comprehensive a narrative appears it will always be the product of inclusion and exclusion. The process of including and excluding certain events is part of what construction is all about, but knowing what is to be included or excluded requires a deeper understanding of the context surrounding the events and an understanding of context requires the storytellers to be efficient in their research and ability to communicate on a visual level.
Narrative stories will likely have within them the following moments:
It is important to say these are not a strict set of rules to follow but rather that these are the elements of common narrative structures. However, whether linear or non-linear and whether they have a resolution or not – narratives will contain the following contextual dimensions:
One of the most important dimensions is personification. Does there need to be a character who gives the story a face? Or does reducing everything to portraiture cut the viewer off from the context and individualise what might otherwise be seen as the main issue?
So, for someone developing a visual story, the most important thing to ask is: what is the story I want to tell? What is the issue that needs to be conveyed? What events will be portrayed? What is the context?
Only once these questions have been asked and answered can the story begin to take shape. But the relationship between the story, events, and the visual, require knowledge of the context in which it is being created and perceived and that demands research because not everything that drives photography is visual.