Photographing with a narrative in mind can be very challenging, but it is by far one of the most interesting topics to discuss when it comes to photography. It could be argued that all photos tell some sort of a story, but I would like to point out that what I’m talking about here are photographs that have been taken with the intention of conveying a sequence of events.
So, what does visual storytelling actually involve? And more importantly, why do some images arrest attention more than others? I’ve talked to Ami Vitale and Logan Havens, two Alamy photographers that truly master the art, to find out.
Kenya’s last rhinos
This spine shivering shot by Ami Vitale shows you three guards watching over a rhino named Sudan, the last known male Northern white rhino, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in northern Kenya. Ami explains that “he and the two females, Najin and Fatu, were airlifted from a zoo in the Czech Republic in 2009, in the hopes that being in their native habitat and climate would encourage them to mate. Today these are the last Northern white rhinos alive on the planet.
“People imagine wildlife roaming freely on the open plains of Africa but this is what it looks like today. Because of poaching and the value of their horns, they have to be guarded around the clock by heavily militarized men. The visual of this is so striking compared to the images we imagine from even just a few decades ago.”
The contrast between these animals peacefully grazing in their natural habitat and the metallic machine guns alert the viewer immediately to the fact that something is horribly wrong. Also as Ami points out, the gap between the viewer’s expectations and the reality provokes a thought process, we start looking for meaning.
Ami has worked on this project since she first heard about the plan to airlift these majestic creatures from the Czech Republic to Kenya eight years ago. The work has given this threatened species a voice and by carefully selecting her frames she has been able to tell the story of Africa’s local communities and the efforts the people put in to protect their wildlife too.
“Much needed attention has been focused on the plight of wildlife and the conflict between heavily armed poachers and increasingly militarized wildlife rangers, but very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the frontlines of the poaching wars and the incredible work that is being done to strengthen them. These communities may hold the key to saving Africa’s great animals,” Ami explains. You can see more from Ami’s work Kenya’s last rhinos here.
Rock paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco
Logan Havens starts off setting the scene by giving us the story leading up the above picture. “We left our old brown Subaru on the side of the road. The metal pans on the bottom of the car had kept scratching up against the huge rocks in the road. We had driven the 25 hours south from Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas and were about 15 miles back toward Los Angeles. An unassuming sign happened to read UNESCO and had a picture illustrating an artifact, so we took the diversion. We walked the dusty road up higher into the mountains, past a locked gate and to a small adobe house. Around the side of the house a family was taking a large slab of meat off an open fire and was bringing it to the table where rice and beans, tortillas, and vegetables were piled on plates. We worked through our collectively poor Spanish to say we wanted to go to the fenced area, and asked how to get in. They offered us food, and then an old man waved us over. We went back around to the front of the house and stepped into the covered front patio area. An ancient wooden desk was pushed up against the wall. He pulled out a drawer with an old pad of receipts. He slowly wrote down three visitors and took our money. He whistled to one of his grandsons and handed him the key. He waved goodbye, and a little boy took us back down the dirt road.”
On this journey, Logan was just about to discover the famous Rock paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco. The paintings preserved by the dry climate, take us back to the home of a people that are long gone, but left behind some of the world’s most astounding paintings, revealing a lost sophisticated culture and unique artistic traditions. However, Logan chose to point his camera away from the much photographed site and towards his encounter with the old man instead. The most interesting elements of travelling are perhaps the encounters you make along the way and Logan wants to share glimpses of the often arduous journey to get to his destinations.
“I’m always photographing with narrative in mind.” Logan explains, “Where am I? How did I get there? Who lives here? What do they do? What is the experience like for me? What kind of food are the people around me eating?”
Transfer of meaning
As a photographer you encode your images. You choose which elements are important to convey your story. However, the transfer of meaning only works if both the encoder and decoder (viewer) are compatible to read the same signs and symbols. This depends on their social and cultural background. Gender, class, ethnicity, religion and sexuality all affect our reading of signs left behind by photographers in their work.
Stuart Hall, an expert in the field of visual communication, claims there are three possible ways your photograph can be read. The first is a dominant reading which is often the preferred reading as this complies with how the photographer intended the image to be read.
The second reading is called a negotiated reading. The reader will here only partly understand the intended message and then create their own story from there on. This type of reading could also be intended by the photographer, especially when creating more artistic work.
Finally, you have the oppositional reading where the reading of an image is in total conflict with what was originally intended. A great example on this is an advertising campaign by the cigarette brand Kent launched in 1986. The ad showed two people flying a kite, and in order to engage with the reader, the advertiser removed any defining features of the people, leaving only silhouettes in which the reader could place themselves. However, because of the rising health warnings, the viewers read the empty silhouettes as ghosts instead.
Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, is essential to understand when shooting with a narrative in mind. The importance of signs and symbols was actually recognised as far back as Plato and Aristotle, as both of them discussed that the way we understand the world around us is built upon different codes. The codes can be divided into three groups, iconic, indexical and symbolic. Iconic codes are based upon resemblance, so when there is a similarity between two objects we can understand the second object based on our understanding of the first. Indexical codes are based upon cause and effect. If we see smoke, we know there must be a fire and footprints are a direct indication of human presence. Symbolic codes are on the contrary specific to culture.
Duality of elements
So why do some photographs arrest attention when others don’t? Roland Barthes, best known in the world of photography for his book “Camera Lucida”, proposes that an image draws attention when it incorporates ‘duality of elements’. If two or more elements contrast each other or make an illogical connection, the photograph becomes a puzzle that needs solving. I came across the above image when looking through Ami Vitale’s collection and thought it couldn’t be a more perfect example of what Roland Barthes is trying to say here. The boy in the right of the image is wearing a jumper with a bold image of a strong bodybuilder, his expression on the other hand seems shy, and there’s a vulnerability presented by him not taking part in play with the other children. The contrast between his clothes and himself are so big that the sense of vulnerability becomes even stronger than his expression alone.
Storytelling in photography is such a broad topic, but hopefully this blog has given you a taste of what it’s all about and inspired you to create your own narratives through photography. We would love to hear your take on this, so comment below if you want to share how you plan your shoots when creating a photograph with a narrative in mind.