Using Conflict to Add Narrative in Photography

This is really part two of a series on bringing narrative into your photography. In the first part, I looked at the human behaviors that drive us toward, away or against others and how those can translate into relatable gestures, relationships and attitudes that infuse narrative into your photography. As I mentioned in the article, there are other techniques. Here we will go through the legendary story arc structures that drive nearly every story ever told. But because we are focused on the single image, not a series of images, it’s important to see how these story arcs can work in a single scene. Other media has the luxury of being able to string together multiple scenes to tell a story, but in photography, we often must do with one. Bringing narrative into a single scene means digging a little deeper. And here is where it is helpful to get into the real purpose of storytelling, by addressing the underlying themes of storytelling that fuel narratives of all kinds.

Human Against Another Human

The classic Western style of narrative pits a human against another human, a la Star Wars, Harry Potter or The Odyssey. Hero vs foe. In this kind of storytelling, a person fights against others. This story does not exist without something outside the person to overcome, and the battle becomes a test of character.

Human Against Human. Photo by Josh S. Rose, 2019.
The Win. Photo by Josh S. Rose, 2021.

Narrative belongs to the photograph, not the photographer. — Josh S. Rose

Humans Against Their Environment

Boy Against His Environment. Photo by Josh S. Rose, 2021.

Humans Against Themselves

Eastern storytelling tends to be rooted more in this type of story, where it’s our inner demons and battles that really are the heart of the matter. Tony Stark fights bad guys, but he also battles his own ego. Jason Bourne fights bad guys, but is even more in conflict with his own past. The Old Man and the Sea, Crime and Punishment, The Metamorphosis… these are all stories about people confronting their inner demons.

From the series, “Conversations With Walls.” Photo by Josh S. Rose, 2018.
From the series, “Life Itself.” Photo by Josh S. Rose, 2015.

Narrative begins in your imagination and ends in someone else’s. — Josh S. Rose

I’m just a boy, standing behind this camera asking it to love me. Top Writer on Photography, Prof of photojournalism, Leica Akademie Instructor, lover of tacos.

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