Exercise – A Narrative Picture Essay (1)

Part 5 : Project Narrative.

A Narrative Picture Essay – Part 1

One of the aspects I’ve been pondering on is the difference between telling a story with pictures and using pictures to illustrate a story. The proportions of words to pictures obviously varies but what other differences are there?.

I wrote a post some time ago about the book, Phil and Me  by the photographer Amanda Tetrault. She put together photographs taken between 1975 and 2003 as a way to understand her feelings towards her father Philip, a poet who suffers from mental illness and has spent periods of homelessness. The book is landscape orientation and measures approximately 11” x 8”.  The title is a facsimile of handwriting.  The cover of the book comprises a collage of images from photo booths (I think). There isn’t any descriptive text inside the book apart from near the beginning of the book where Amanda writes a letter to her father (in print) in 2004.  There are no captions to the images.

The photographs record Amanda and Philip growing older as they meet though the years. There are also scans of poems handwritten by Philip. Looking at it again, I still feel the same kind of sadness as before. The waste of a creative life; all the missed possibilities; Amanda as an observer of her father. These are pretty much warts and all images.  They are mostly monotone, and low-key, like images snatched quickly although I have the sense that some of them were posed – after all, Philip Tetrault is also a performer. And yet – the images also give a sense of a relationship hanging on and surviving despite everything. Where am I going to with this?  Well – this book tells a story in pictures. What I’m not sure about is whether I would read the story in the same way if I hadn’t read about the book before I bought it.  Or if I hadn’t had the experience of spending time with people who suffer mental illness and their families who live through this with them.

I have another book, acquired more recently, called Irish Travellers, by Alen Macweeney.  In the 1960s he began to photograph Travellers in Dublin and the West of Ireland. He spent time with them and tape recorded their stories and songs which had been handed down orally through the years. In 1997 he went back to make a film about them and what had become of them.

Whereas Amanda Tetrault’s book has a rawness about it, this second book has a more serious social documentary aspect. There is an introduction by Bairbre Ni Fhloinn, University College Dublin. The book has chapters and Macweeney writes about the families or records their songs/stories. There is only one photograph (but of varying sizes) to a page and some stretch over two pages. Where an image bleeds into one page the opposite page usually has a wider margin than usual. All the photographs have captions so you know who these people are and even though there is written narrative the images take up a largest portion of the book. There is something here for me about giving importance to and space for the subjects to become alive for the reader –  even though it’s still warts and all and doesn’t attempt to add false glamour.  On the whole, Macweeney’s point of view is right up close.  I get a sense of how the Travellers lived their lives yes I don’t feel drawn into them in the same way. Is what’s happening here to do with the fact that I can’t imagine those lives in the same way I can with Amanda Tetrault’s book?

What I’ve been attempting to do here is to increase my understanding of the different ways in which images and words can be put together and presented in a book and also the effect of prior knowledge on the viewer/reader which takes me back to the need to establish my reading/viewing population in considering the composition of a photo essay.

20th February 2012


Macweeney, A, Irish Travellers (2007), New England College Press, NH

Tetrault, A, Phil and Me, 2004, Trolley Ltd, GB