Beginning thoughts and reading – Narrative and illustration

The Art of Photography

Part 5 : Narrative and illustration – Initial reading and thoughts

 I’m now coming towards the end of this Module and, it’s odd, but I don’t want it to finish. Maybe authors feel like this when they’ve written a book (or experienced photographers when they’re coming to the end of a lengthy project).  This is not to mention the fact that, as usual, I feel anxious as to whether I’ll be able to meet the brief for the Assignment, especially as I’ve now had the invitation (and a reminder) to apply for formal assessment.   Still, best not to think too far ahead and I have a few ideas to explore.


This is the first Project.  I’ve read through the Handbook notes and this is what immediately comes to mind. I’ll add additional thoughts as I progress through the exercises.

 Using photography to tell a story now as opposed to treating it as a set of skills. This brings intent more into the frame. What is the purpose of the photograph; how is it going to be used. Michael Freeman (2007 p. 134) writes about the differences between reactive (I like his description of guerrilla still-life photography taken handheld from real life’!) or planned photography, and the role of the photographer’s personality. With regard to the latter, he might well have added experience and self-confidence.   My preference is for a mix of reactive and planned – like the action learning cycle, so that a project can attain more depth and immediacy.

Subject versus design/form versus content – put the subject first; consider what is important and let this suggest the treatment. Compositional skills may be less important than telling the story; bringing a subject to life. I’m thinking here of the growth in the use of camera phones as snapshots of events. They can bring that raw element of ‘here and now’ action to the fore, the recent riots in London for example (back to guerrilla photography). Images from a royal wedding are received best when beautifully, nay romantically, composed, whereas images of a famous star with her head in curlers and no make-up usually have that ‘snatched out of the blue’ air.

Narrative in photography is a way of telling a story through a set of pictures as opposed to trying to tell a story in a single picture. Sometimes, though, just one image conveys a moment in time which encapsulates an issue, as in photojournalism.  That single image becomes more than the sum of its parts. For instance, when I see those photographs of coffins of servicemen and women being brought back to the UK I have a flash of what their lives might have been like. The image of the young mutilated Afghan girl brought forward a whole story in my imagination of why and how this happened which deepened my sense of  anger and pity.

Showing each different aspect of the subject in a separate image is more simple than attempting to find a viewpoint in which they are combined and best suited to subjects made up of several parts or events. I need to keep the following in mind and a ‘picture script’ is a helpful aide-memoire:-

Plotting the story

  •  When and where
  • Venue and timing
  • What kind of event
  • Good locations to shoot from – making a reconnaissance.
  • What will work best –  birds-eye view or on the ground
  • Long-distance; close-up, overall, detail
  • Weather considerations
  • What restrictions might there be
  • What’s allowed and what not

Planning what and how to shoot

  • Kind of shots which might be expected or hoped for –  such as distant, close-up, or detail.
  • Variety of images to consider – the whole set will be more interesting with the most visual variety. Therefore consider vertical as well as horizontal; taken at different scales and focal length; variety of colour and lighting.

It’s comforting to have a beginning ‘how to’ list when starting from almost zero. A few months ago I started off on a personal project concerned with reconnecting with my childhood.  This involved me in spending a few days in September back in Sheffield and the Peak District, and I certainly made a list and kept a log book. What happened though was that as soon as I got back I realised that there were certain photographs it would have been good to have and arrangements I should have made beforehand. I’m still working on this particular project and gathering material together and, fortunately, I’m going back in April. The project for Assignment 5 will be a smaller scale. I have some initial ideas and, this time, will make sure I plan more comprehensively and stay nearer to home.

In thinking about ‘telling a story’ there was also another helpful article by Michael Freeman on the Photonet website – ‘Three Tips to help your photos tell a story”. Tip 1 was that  pictures also have to do a job of explaining so put yourself into your viewer’s shoes and ask yourself is anything is unexplained. Do your friends understand it, is anything missed out/needs explaining. This also brings words/captions into play – an area which has involved considerable discussion on the OCA Flickr site. Tip 2 is start with the basic 3-plus-1 ingredients. Start strong, develop the storyline, end strong.  Plus 1 is that key shot a strong powerful image which will ‘halt’ the viewer and key the story somewhere. Tip 3 ( as above) is that a linear story is the easiest.

I bought ‘Context and Narrative’ (Maria Short) last September as well.  I’ve dipped into it but now intend to absorb it more conscientiously. Here I go!


17th January 2012.


Freeman, M. “The Photographers Eye”, 2007,

Short. S, “Context and Narrative”,  2011, AVA Publishing, SA


Freeman M, “three tips to help your photos tell a story”, The Ilex Press Ltd (accessed 17.1.2012)

9 Comments on “Beginning thoughts and reading – Narrative and illustration”

  1. Vicki Loader says:

    Good luck Catherine—it does sound like you have it planned well! Looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

    A helpful post for me, seeing that I hope—one day—to get to this assignment!!

  2. John Umney says:

    When I did some directing I often said to the players that making a “big” entrance to grab the audiences attention is one thing, more difficult is the task of deserving to maintain their attention until at least the end of the first act! If you can do that you stand a chance of completing the story before they switch off, and if you do that they will remember not only the story, but the performance as well. To put it in terms of a musical, it is the bit between the opening number and the 11 o’Clock number that probably needs the most work.
    Looking forward to seeing it.

  3. norma bellini says:

    Very interesting, Catherine, and well thought out. I am sure the results will be first rate.

  4. marmalade says:

    Great book too…full of inspiration…a very informative post…have fun!

  5. Barry says:

    Hi Catherine,
    A great post, and very inspiring to those of us who are still way back near the beginning of TAOP. I’ve been reading ahead in the course notes, and wondering how to plan (or even think about planning), this part of the course. I’m sure it’ll all turn out great for you!
    Good luck!

    • Glad you enjoyed it Barry. When you look back you’ll probably be surprised at the leaps you’ve made! At first, all those exercises seemed endless and I realised I was beginning to take a mechanical approach to them. That was the turnaround for me because, somehow, I managed to relax more into it all and I’m hopeful that now I can be more creative in my approach. Have you got a blog yet? Let me know and I’ll bookmark it if so.

      All the best,

  6. Barry says:

    Hi Catherine,
    Funny you should talk about developing a mechanical approach, as it’s just dawned on me that it was happening to me too. I’m trying to change that for assignment two, so we’ll see how that goes.
    My blog is at:

    It’s still in its early stages, but you’re welcome to have a look!

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