Narrative photography is the use of photographs to create a record, or a documentary that tells a story or conveys a message. It can be a single image or a series of images. The narrative photograph is one that differentiates itself from a general photograph of an urban street scene, a portrait or a landscape. Photographs that capture a significant event and convey the essence, character or emotion of the event.
Photojournalism is probably the most well-known form of narrative or documentary photography that uses photographs to capture an event and convey the significance or story of an event. It might be a political rally, images of hardships or disasters, suffering or poverty. Joyous events, festivals, special occasions or shows. People from exotic places near or faraway showing emotions and relationships.
Documentary photography came into use during the American depression of the 1930s and images of the dust bowl, farmers in desperate poverty and urban decay and slums.
A big challenge of the narrative photograph that tells a story is that the photograph is a snapshot of time. Stories evolve and run over time with a beginning middle and end. The narrative photograph therefore has to try and convey as much as possible the story over a passage of time, what has happened, what is happening and what will or likely to happen in the future.
The narrative photograph has been taken in to publishing and storytelling in comics. The traditional comic stories that had line drawings or cartoons, some have been replaced with photo stories. This example is from a 1980’s comic called ‘Girl’. The photo story is the story acted out and photographed, the story is enhanced with speech bubbles to move the story along and explain the pictures.
Image 1 Girl comic, Photo Story. Don’t Blame Jenny!
The single narrative photograph has elements that can set the scene or put the story in some context is the background environment. In the example by Henri Cartier-Bresson, photograph of a man trying to cross a large puddle without getting wet, which is the main subject of the story.
Image 2 FRANCE. 1932. Paris. Place de l’Europe. Gare Saint Lazare.
There are two possible backstories or reasons why the water is there that could be identified.
Story one: The puddle and ‘grey’ day atmosphere the viewer could assume that there might have been heavy rain that caused the flooding, but the rain has stopped because there are no ripples caused by rain drops in the puddle.
Story two: There is some building or excavation work being undertaken and as a result a water pipe has caused the flooding. The indicators in the photograph for this possibility are the piles of sand or earth in the foreground, the piles of rubble in the background, there is man standing in work clothes near a wheelbarrow. There is a ladder laying down in the middle of the water.
The key subject of the story is the man jumping across the puddle in an attempt to stay dry, the man is not carrying an umbrella that is up adds to the story that it is not actively raining. The puddle is very large the man has leapt on to a ladder to prevent from getting his feet wet, and has been photographed in mid-air attempting to jump clear of the water. Capturing the mid-air jump gives movement to the picture. From the height and flight-path of his jump he is doomed to fail. The man is above the water and the length of stride, the viewer is left in anticipation expecting the next thing to happen is the man is going to get wet landing in the puddle.
What makes a Narrative photograph
The narrative photographs have in common is many people. It is the human interest, the things they have done, doing or about to do that tells the story.