Assignment 3: David Campbell on narrative

Assignment 3 is all about Visual Storytelling – incorporating a sense of narrative into a photo essay. While I have attempted photo essays in the past, I really want to start work on this assignment in earnest with a deeper understanding of photographic narrativity, and a refresher on best practice for photo essays generally.

To this end, the two main sources of theory have informed my planning for this assignment are the 2010 David Campbell lecture as directed in the assignment brief, and a re-reading of Hurn & Jay’s chapter on photo essays in On Being a Photographer (1997). I’ll cover the Hurn & Jay advice in a separate post.

David Campbell lecture

The main points I took away from Campbell’s lecture (and his accompanying text article, which is a summary rather than a direct transcript):

  • Narrative is a construct
    • It is an account of connected events, it is not the events themselves
    • It is an account inherently based on inclusion and exclusion, whilst (usually) aiming to communicate a representative version of the events
    • The editing of real events into a narrative is a form of constructing coherence – of ‘making sense’ of what is, in real life, very messy and often incoherent
    • Narratives do not exist fully-formed, they are subjectively made – someone decides which ‘dots’ to place for the audience to connect
    • Subjectivity does not mean that a narrative can be made-up or misleading
  • Context is crucial
    • Need to understand how the events became connected
    • And how the events connect to a wider pre-existing (or evolving) context
    • Reading and research!
    • Question (unanswered by Campbell): does context need to be embedded in the photo essay? or should one assume that the audience already has the context?
  • Hierarchy of actuality:
    • Issue (context) -> Event(s) -> Story (narrative)
  • Simple narrative structure (from literature):
    • Beginning -> Middle -> End
  • Further narrative elements:
    • Exposition
    • Conflict
    • Climax
    • Resolution
  • Dimensions of narrative:
    • Time (whether linear or not)
    • Space
    • Drama
    • Causality
    • Personification (putting a face on the issue)
  • The paragraph that closes the text article merits including in its entirety:
    • “For someone developing a visual story, the most important thing to ask is ‘what is the story you really want to tell?’ Answering that can mean working through these questions:
      – what is the issue?
      –  what will be the events/moments?
      – if needed, who are the characters?
      – what is the context?
      The relationship between story, event and and issue requires knowledge of the context above all else. That demands research because not everything that drives photography is visual.” (Campbell 2010)

The message that comes across very strongly is one of subjectivity and authorship. Deciding what story you want to tell before you start is a double-edged sword though – does it risk being blinkered? Do you just look for moments that fit your preconceptions? The flip side is that unless you know what you’re looking for, you won’t see it…

The alternative approach is to be more open, to select the overall issue and observe events until a narrative emerges, and refine as you go along.

My experience on this assignment has been a blend of the two: general subject matter (anti-fracking movement) was chosen first, but the ‘story’ is something that presented itself to me after a couple of weeks of observation and thought.

Campbell closes the lecture with a discussion of the responsibility of the photographer. In the light of the degree of reflexivity, subjectivity and authorship inherent in documentary photography, the gravity of this responsibility is not to be underestimated.


David Campbell lecture (accessed 03/08/2016)

David Campbell article (accessed 03/08/2016)

Hurn, D. and Jay, B.(1997) On Being a Photographer. USA: Lenswork


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