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.
It comes down to three ultimate narrative themes:
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.
In photography, while we cannot build up to a battle, depict the battle, include a plot twist and then resolve the story, we can certainly depict the struggle between beings. They do not even have to be engaged in the heat of battle, we just somehow need to know that there is indeed a hero present and something or someone to be overcome. Low angles, dramatic lighting, arenas, muscles, eyes focused and determined… you know the story.
But keep in mind that not all struggles are life and death — or even need to be depicted as a great dramas. Even when covering a friendly soccer match there are winners and losers. But this is why I look for the height of emotion or conflict — or that which appears as emotion or conflict — within even something simple. This is my own desire for narrative; to do something more than simply “get the action.” I want the viewers of my imagery to feel the story underneath it and in that way, I’m inserting narration into the image.
I always try to remember that the narrative is not my own voice. Narrative belongs to the photograph, not the photographer.
Narrative belongs to the photograph, not the photographer. — Josh S. Rose
Humans Against Their Environment
Another classic struggle is us against our surroundings, or nature. Think Revenant, Castaway, Swiss Family Robinson. This is easier to show in single imagery because photography is a great medium to see relationships in — and so by juxtaposing people with their environment, we invite the audience to see this classic struggle in frame.
When you see small figures set against large landscapes, urban or natural, it is a form of this kind of age-old narrative. But there are many ways one can interpret the human vs environment storyline. Odd juxtapositions, as you often see in street photography, or even off-kilter angles, or humans caught in seemingly unnatural poses or situations, can all suggest that your character is at odds with the surroundings. Even the mundanity of being at work can represent this storyline. But for my own work, I like to delve into the struggle in more pronounced ways. But I like a heightened story. I like more narrative, more subtext, more to wonder about.
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.
As this is a very psychological type of storyline, it can help here to refer back to the behavioral attributes of part one. But when people have inner struggles, they can be lost in thought, struggling, depressed, alone, looking up to the heavens, or head down in a bottle of scotch. This is actually a fairly easy one to just find, if you’re observant — often people look lost in thought, even when they are not. When you catch a model in-between poses, just wandering off or thinking to themselves, it can often have the appearance of someone who is battling something inside. This is something you can use for narrative effect, even in a studio shoot, with just a model and a backdrop.
But for maximum storytelling effect, I believe you want some context. Beyond the subject’s expression or pose, for storytelling purposes, an audience wants to know what the scene is. Something that allows us to think, “oh, I’ve been there.” When we feel the scene, we put ourselves into it. And this is the great power of storytelling.
Remember, when you tell a story, it is not the story of you. This is the thing that most every photographer gets hung up on. There is plenty of beautiful non-narrative photography out there (just as there is non-narrative poetry) that is expressive, beautiful, deep, emotional and observational. And if you’re trying to depict how good a photographer you are with an image, then non-narrative is for you. But if you want to step out of your own story and be the director of a movie about something, or someone, else, then the tools of narrative can help you develop it.
In my opinion, this is exactly how a photographer expands their portfolio. Creating worlds and telling stories through imagery is a true gift, because narrative begins in your imagination and ends in someone else’s.
Narrative begins in your imagination and ends in someone else’s. — Josh S. Rose