In my workshop today that I gave on Daisie, I took participants through an hour-long deep dive into how to add narrative into their photographs. It was a great session, but it really takes some unpacking to truly get what is meant by narrative.
We often intertwine the word “storytelling” with “narrative,” but that’s a little misleading. Yes, narrative is part of storytelling, but storytelling is a generic term that applies to many media, most of which have something that photography does not: Time. With time, characters develop, plots twist, tensions rise and arcs arc. With photographs, famously, time stops. Sure, you can do a series, but what of the single photograph? How is narrative applied there? To get to it, one has to dive a little deeper than simply using the word “storytelling.”
In the workshop, we used narrative and non-narrative poetry as an entry point to push into it further. We even looked at how Scorsese uses a narrator’s voice in his films to create narrative. But one of my favorite parts of discussing narrative is to talk about how we, as photographers, can affect, create and find it, while we shoot. There are many techniques, but the one I want to spend some time on here is the idea of human behaviors.
As the great psychoanalyst Karen Horney pointed out in her “Theory of Neurotic Needs,” our behavioral patterns — as a result of our early relationship issues as children — lead us to one of three behavioral trends: the need to move toward others, move away from others or move against others. Armed with this understanding, we can look at the world — and the humans in it — with a sense of what is being conveyed in what we are photographing.
It’s useful to remember that when you engage in narrative-driven photography, you are, in essence, the director. And here, it’s not your voice that you need to qualify in your images so much as that of your subjects. So, when offering direction to a model, actor or dancer, the three behavioral guides give you ample territory to work with, especially when dealing with more than one person in an image. The narrative happens because the roles are defined and the relationship is relatable. When you let the people you’re photographing know where the tension is, and how they are responding to it, you create the relationship and infuse story into your image. As an audience, we are intrigued — because we recognize ourselves and our own emotions and plight in the depiction.
Likewise, when you are out shooting and simply trying to capture things that are happening that you can’t direct, you can still look for the physical indicators of these three human behaviors to ensure that your shot has a sense of narrative.
This is just one of many great narrative techniques you can pull out at shoots. More to come. But for now, happy shooting. Go tell some stories.