Giving meaning to photographs is something that I think helps to distinguish talented photographers from more amateur photographers, as it allows them to engage the viewer. Narrative photography is a branch of photography that I am particularly fond of, as it allows the photographer to express a particular story or message in the photo, which helps to give their photograph a subject to focus on. Narrative photography can be used to tell a story, create an image or provide the viewer with a new opinion of something.
Narrative photography is often used as a form of persuasion, which helped develop a sub-format of narrative photography known as propaganda photography. Propaganda photography is used to tell stories and create opinions of subjects; for example, propaganda is often associated with war as it can be used to help influence the community and show the brutality or glory of battles. This shows how narrative photography can be used as a strong tool for coaxing an opinion.
One of the photographers that I found to be particularly influential to my attraction to narrative photography and the ability for a photographer to be able to tell a story was Irish photographer Andrew McConnell. McConnell has photographed much of the conflict that occurred in Northern Ireland before turning his focus to social documentary on a global scale. My pull towards McConnell came when I was researching into narrative photographers and the different ways that they express the stories they encounter. I particularly liked his series of shots entitled ‘Hidden Lives – The Untold Story of Urban Refugees’ as I felt that they really expressed his narrative technique.
The series focuses on how the lives of refugees are changing; how the clichéd image of refugee camps is changing as many displaced people seek safety and economic independency in inner cities, but realistically they encounter harsh living conditions and poverty. Andrew McConnell uses a simplistic portraiture technique in this series, but creates the effective story using a short paragraph or single sentence caption to tell the story of the person or people the photo is focused around. McConnell uses dark lighting, often with a single light source illuminating the subjects in an unnatural white light, enabling him to centre the focus around them, even with the striking illuminated cityscape in the background.
One of my most preferred shots in the series is of a woman and a toddler sitting high above a city of lights atop a crumbling wall in Port-au-Prince - Haiti. Initially, I loved the composition of the photograph with the woman turned looking away from the camera to the side, and the child curiously looking towards the lens of the camera; then the speckled lights of the town curving around the bay behind. I also loved the darkness of the sky and the sunset that matched the mood of the rest of the photo. Oddly, McConnell chose to position the subjects centrally to the photograph, going against the rule of thirds technique, however, I felt that because of
the more zoomed out approach to the portrait that allowed more of the surroundings to be visible, it worked successfully and didn’t create an uneven feel. It was only after I read the caption to the photo that I began to understand the mood of the photo and the atmosphere that seemed to arise from it; it read:
‘Lanier Lovely, displaced by the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, pictured with her son, Lovinsky, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Lanier was raped while living in a displaced persons camp and became pregnant as a result.’
It astounded me that this was the real untold story behind the photograph, as there was no way of knowing without reading the caption; it is possible to recognise that this is no ordinary portrait photograph, but it is difficult to comprehend just quite the extent of the extraordinary situation that this woman has had unwillingly forced upon her.
My photograph of a group of children in Borneo is an example of an image that leaves interpretation open to the mind of the viewer. There could be a deep and meaningful story that was left unmentioned to me, or it could simply be a photograph of some children.
Similarly to McConnell’s other work, a portrait of a family from the same series captioned..:
…‘Sahro Ilmi Muhamed, from Jijiga, Ethiopia, pictured with her children Adnan Abdi, 7, Elmi Noor, 2, and Mohammed Abdi, 9, in Eastleigh, Nairobi, Kenya. Sahro is an ethnic Somali and had to flee Ethiopia after her Oromo husband died and his family started to abuse her.’…
…instigated a similar effect on me. I found it particularly distressing to see them huddled together on the floor in the street, as it helps to tell their difficult story of abuse and fleeing, and it really reaches out to the viewer. I felt as though Andrew McConnell was particularly successful at arousing fascination as to what the story behind the photo would be just by his use of dark lighting and the illuminated expressions of the individuals.
McConnell successfully employs the use of vanishing points with the walls and roofs of the surrounding buildings all-leading down towards the background alleyway and family in the foreground. However, the aspects of the above photograph that I did dislike were the dash of green in the doorway to the left of the photograph, as I felt the inclusion of the bright colour was distracting from the main focus of the individuals, and the bright colour of the orange sky for similar reasons; however this did not affect the overwhelming sense of sorrow and helplessness I received from the powerful story behind the photo. After reading the caption, my emotion had changed. Initially I felt as though the shot could have been trying to portray a family living in poverty, but after taking in what the caption was saying, I realised that it was more than that; McConnell was trying to tell me that this photograph illustrated the story of a family escaping a life of abuse and trauma.
The second influential photographer that I felt inspired by was Lucy Fiddian-Green. Fiddian-Green is a young graduate photographer and has many different styles of photograph, including narrative, displayed in her interesting yet limited portfolio. A quote from her biography that I felt summed up her style of narrative photography indefinitely was about how her use of light, colour and composition to describe the message her photos portray. She said:
‘it is the reason why images can communicate greater subtleties in meaning than words can ever achieve.’
This method contrasts with Andrew McConnell’s method of using photographs accompanied by a long caption or phrase describing the story of the subjects, as she feels that the images alone are more powerful than any number of words will ever be. I liked how different the two approaches to narrative photography were; McConnell focusing on creating a tense atmosphere with composition and lighting and allowing the audience to see the naked truth of the story with a very honest explanation, whilst I felt Fiddian-Green was more engaged in using inspiration from surrealist artists and photographers to make the viewer question the meaning behind the photo and try to piece together the story or scene.
One shot that made me question the reasoning behind the scene was of a female figure standing positioned in a closet with the top portion of the body shrouded by the hanging clothes. I found myself asking questions such as, ‘why is that figure in a closet?’, ‘is she hiding?’, ‘what is she hiding from?’ and this made my imagination kick into action to try to begin to piece together a logical understanding. I liked the way that Fiddian-Green’s photography inflicted this effect on me as it makes you engage with the photographer. The only text that Fiddian-Green includes in the photograph is the caption – usually only a single word or two. In this case the word was ‘Wardrobe’, which left the meaning behind the photo very much open to the interpretation of the audience.
I liked the way that the photographer had chosen to illuminate the scene with a light source that allowed a harsh vignette to be formed. This technique helped to draw the attention to the centre of the image and point our focus towards the figure and question the intention of the shot. My interpretation of the photograph was
that the woman felt as though she was just an accessory, perhaps to her boyfriend or partner to make them look good, so she compared herself to items of clothing, which of course are accessories to our own image.
Fiddian-Green also produced a photograph entitled ‘Toilet’ in which the subject is seen sitting in a peculiar position on the toilet. I quite liked the lighting in the picture because there was a dark and uneasy feel about the photo due to the amount of shadow. The use of a roof light to illuminate the figure gave the photo a lot of strong shadows which contrast with the bright white light being cast onto the floor; the way that the face of the girl is away from the light also casts an ominous darkness about the photo and makes us ponder the reasoning for her strange pose.
The way that Fiddian-Green uses irregular vertical lines to border the scene creates a sense of unease, tension, even fear in the viewer. I think this is intentional, as she is trying to create a background story, and the sense of unease helps the imagination of the viewer to create the story for themselves – oddly enough, the image made me think of the movie ‘The Last Exorcism’ due to the strange posture and dark shadowy lighting.
I incorporated the styles of both Fiddian-Green and McConnell, as well as Maleonn - another photographer I saw exhibited who uses props to create a scene and tell a story. Maleonn described his work as:
‘The portraits are what they like or what they’ve always been dreamt of but never got a chance to own.’
I felt this allowed the subjects in the portraits to create a story for themselves in their portrait, as they could have a chance to make the photo their own using personal props. Each and every photograph was unique to those in it, as they decided what would be included and how it would be set up. This created a story, as it is most likely a once in a lifetime experience, whilst also telling a story, as a lot of the participants are basing the shot on their dreams and ambitions.
I combined all of these styles together, including some additional inspiration from Gillian Wearing, for a photo shoot focused around the expression and managing of problems and difficulties. All of the words and
sentences presented in the photo were put forward by the model herself, as it allowed her to be more open with her emotions and created a personal link between her and myself.
I like the irony in this shot; the look on her face of self-dissatisfaction at the fact she is yet to see her dream become reality, yet she is acting as a model in the photograph. I liked how the facial expression helped her to illustrate the story of how she hasn’t achieved what she wanted to, and the way she feels about this. I did feel as though she was still clinging to the dream though, through the way that her hands clutch the paper and delicately hold her dream together.
A historical example of a photograph with an untold story is the notorious ‘Afghan Girl’ – taken by Steve McCurry back in December, 1984. At the time, McCurry was visiting Pakistan and documenting what he saw during his rare opportunity to photograph Afghan women in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp. Gula, the girl featured in the photograph, aged 12 at the time it was taken, was one of only a few students who attended the informal school within the camp. Although the portrait was made famous when it featured on the front cover of National Geographic Magazine in June 1985, her identity was unknown until 2002 when a National Geographic team sought to find her; when they did eventually find her, they learned she had never seen the 17-year famous photograph.
Upon first glance, Afghan Girl seems like a portrait of a beautiful young woman who was photographed for her good looks and piercingly green eyes, but upon closer studying, the photograph is extremely well composed and tells a deep story. The image is tightly focused on the girl and McCurry employs use of colour theory well, with the dark orange scarf contrasting with the light green background and intense green eyes. The whole use of colour is well coordinated and the expression on the female’s face is mesmerising.
Once learning the story behind the photograph; about how she was forced to flee to the refugee camp with her siblings and grandmother after her village was subject to an airstrike from Soviet helicopter gunships killing both her parents, how she struggled being one of only a few students to attend the camp’s internal school, how she returned to Afghanistan in 1992 and had 4 children, one of which died in infancy, and how her portrait would become an iconic symbol of the 1980s Afghan conflict and the refugee situation worldwide, you begin to see the events as they’re going to unfold through her eyes – it’s as if they are a gateway to her future, and staring into them can allow the viewer to get a glimpse of what she has to come. I like how she gives the impression of her normal self in the photograph as she was only 12 when it was taken, and she is yet to encounter some of these big life events.
Similarly to Lucy Fiddian-Green, Steve McCurry used a lack of words and let the story come out separate to the image. I prefer this technique as it allows the audience to create their own story to fit the subject of the picture and submit to their own creativity, and it is interesting to see the way that their perception of the photograph changes once they learn the true meaning - if there is one.
In my opinion, images must have a story; without it they are meaningless and lose the effect that us as the audience are receiving first-hand information from the photographer. All the photographers that I have looked at during the course of the study have shared this common factor which is that their images in one form or another have a story to tell.
Photographers can exhibit the story however they choose; through use of captions, composition, props, stating the obvious or simply not declaring it at all and leaving it to the interpretation of the viewer, all of which I feel are as valid as each other. The way of expressing the story that I felt was the most effective and allowed the best interpretation of each story was to purely leave the story to the viewer’s discretion or include a single vague caption, as I liked the way that my own explanation could be right or wrong, and it was my own imagination that would dictate the meaning behind the image. I hope that my final image/s will enable the viewer to feel this way. I am aiming to keep the meaning behind the image a mystery, and use only a single short word as the title, with no real indication as to why the images are how they are. I have enjoyed studying this theme and where it has led me, as it has kept me interested and excited as I found different photographers to take inspiration from.
Fiddian-Green, L. (2013, 11 03). Gallery 1. Retrieved from http://www.lucyfiddiangreen.com/
Griffin, D. (2008, February ). How photography connects us. David Griffin - Director of photography, National Geographic . TED.
Maleonn. (2013, 11 10). Maleonn and his ‘Mobile Studio’. Retrieved from http://www.maleonn.com/articles/791.html
McConnell, A. (2013, 10 20). Hidden Lives. Retrieved from The Untold Story of Urban Refugees: http://www.andrewmcconnell.com/index.php/category/hidden-lives-the-untold-story-of-urban-refugees
Newman, C. (2002, April). National Geographic. Retrieved from A Life Revealed: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2002/04/afghan-girl/index-text
Wearing, G. (1997). Gillian Wearing - Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say. London: Interim Art.
Beautiful sunset yesterday.
Hidden Lives - The Untold Story of Urban Refugees
Very inspirational and slightly shocking narrative photographer.