CAN The easy way to remember the difference between



put it simply, yes. A photograph can narrate. Before delving further in to the
question though, we first have to understand what a narrative is, and how it
differs from a story.

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definition, narrative is ‘a spoken or written
account of connected events’ (Oxford Dictionary, 1993). Understanding that this
isn’t the exact same as a story will help further this answer. Another way to
remember that both stories, and narratives aren’t 100% the same thing, is to
think of a story as linear, whereas narrative, it is your choice of which
events within the story to relate, and in what order you wish to relate them.

‘Narrative is the choice of which events to relate
and in what order to relate them – so it is a representation or specific
manifestation of the story, rather than the story itself. The easy way to
remember the difference between story and narrative is to reshuffle the order
of events. A new event order means you have a new narrative of the same story.’
(Beemgee, 2014)

As you can see in
the above reference, there is a noticeable difference between what a story is,
and what a narrative is. This should better aid in understanding why a
photograph, can narrate.


Another source that
I was able to find that supports the idea of narrative through photography is
that of David Campbell. Campbell states that photography is merely the carrier
of narrative, giving the viewer a chance to attach a narrative to a photograph
through their own personal experiences with the aid of visual elements within
each photograph that they see.

‘In telling
visual stories about the world, photography is narrating the world. Of course,
narrative is something that is far larger than photography. Social
communication is one of the defining characteristics of being human, and
narrative stories have long been a common and powerful mode for transmitting
information.’ (Campbell, 2010)


One aid in the
argument, is that when a photograph is put in to circulation, there is a subconscious
use of semiotics attached to the image by the audience. Photographers know that
this happens, and so they will more often than not hide, or subtly add signs
and symbols throughout their photographs. You will see this more in advertising
than most other genres of the art, as they are trying to sell certain goods. Ferdinand
De Saussure argued
that ‘reality’ was merely a ‘concept’.

‘”In Saussure’s semiotics, a “table” is now only a
“concept” referred to by language through a conventional signifier: t-a-b-l-e.”
2016: 20)

This can be translated in to visual representation
when it comes down to certain aspects of photography. The general image, is
seen the same by everyone. They know exactly what it is, or what it is meant to
be, however when they look deeper in to an image, their “reality” of the image
is different to that of someone else’s. A photograph trying to sell you
something will be a photograph of just that product (either in use or on a
backdrop) however, the colours, the editing style, the lighting, could have a different
effect on one person than it does on another. Purely because they place a
different meaning on to the visual signs and symbols.


Another convincing argument is one made by Mary Warner
Marien, and that is that, through literature, and other ways of storytelling,
photographers have been able to create their own narrative structures for

 “In overwrought language and
outlandish plots, popular fiction played on the visual veracity of photography,
suggesting that the medium could reach beneath the surface to penetrate the
minds of sitters” (Warner Marien, 2002: 75)

Marien, has here suggested that the way we view images as an audience has
changed over time, and that once, we saw photographs as predominantly documents,
there for us to see what was happening at a certain moment in time, and that
there was no manipulation. However, with the use of ‘overwrought language and
outlandish plots’ photography, and photographers are now able to play around
with the details, with the introduction of technically advanced photo
manipulation software, there is now more room to create a more intricate, and “false”
narrative. Also as viewers of images, now have more freedom creatively when it
comes to viewing photographs, as they are now exposed to more outlandish
stories and plots, so their minds are able to create a more interesting
connection to images.


Barthe’s book ‘Camera Lucida’ focuses on two main factors. Studium and Punctum.

Studium is the emotional attachment to photographs, Punctum is an object or
image that is striking to the viewer. For the sake of answering this essay
question, I will mainly discuss the Studium as that is what shows the
photographer’s intention with the photograph. As the audience, we have to work
in reverse to what the photographer was doing, as we have to look and study an
image to come to the point where we figure out the photographer’s intention,
this is when the narrative separates from the story because each individual who
views the photograph will arrive at the intention differently, so the narrative
will be different, even though the final findings might be the same.

‘Barthes calls Studium ‘a kind of education
(civility, politeness) that allows discovery of the operator’. Basically
studium is the element that creates interest in a photographic image. It shows
the intention of the photographer but we experience this intention in reverse
as spectators; the photographer thinks of the idea (or intention) then present
it photographically, the spectator then has to act in the opposite way, they
see the photograph then have to interpretate it to see the ideas and intentions
behind it.’ (Powell, 2008)

Culture has an important connotation
with studium, as it is the culture that you surround yourself with, which determines
how you read, and depict, figures, faces, and gestures. To quote Barthes ‘it is
culturally that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the
settings, the actions,’ (barthes, 1980). Here Barthes is saying that people
will value different aspects of images due to the people and cultures you grew
up around, and the type of culture you are a part of now, as different gestures
say, are values and interpreted differently from culture to culture, so the
narrative of images created by different cultures will vary drastically
because, people will hold different aspects of photographs to a higher or lower
value than others.

Narrative was originally a concept
founded within literature, but before we are able to discuss photographs as
visual narratives, we have to first look at the original visual representations
of narratives. Paintings. In their most basic form, paintings came to be in the
time of Neanderthals. From discoveries on the walls of caves, we were able to
determine the types of lives that the early ancestors of the human species
lived. We could see the types of animals they hunted, and how they hunted them,
because they were able to paint their stories on to the walls of caves. Which when
we (humans) found these paintings we were able to follow the narratives within
the images. A later example of narrative being found within paintings is J.M.W
Turner’s painting titled ‘Fishermen at Sea’ (figure1). The story is one that
can easily be found, it is one of fishermen in a rough sea, struggling for
their living. To find the narrative one would have to search the whole image,
and look at what is happening, look at the location, and scenery, look at the
sky and the birds. You would also have to take in to consideration (subconsciously)
where you are from, because this image would have a different narrative to
someone who comes from a fishing town, compared to someone who comes from a
major city.

To conclude this essay, it is profusely
clear that a photograph can narrate. It became more obvious as the more
research was conducted, that the use of different lighting techniques, props,
locations, models was the fundamental way in which narrative can be delivered. When
it comes to the progression of narrative in photography, you can clearly see
there is a drastic change compared to when it was first invented. The
narratives in photography originally were of ‘what was’, compare that to the
modern imagery, there could be, and are several different narratives within
single images. After researching, and putting time in to study critical
theories, of Barthes, and Saussure the question ‘can a photograph narrate is?’
is answered by a simple yes, they can. They narrate through both the
photographers’ image making, but mainly through the audience’s perception of
the photographs, based on their social and cultural influences, along with
personal experiences. This simply put, means, the majority of narrations within
a photograph are similar, but different due to the person viewing the image. 


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