Ruta Saksens Kalmane
CONTEXT AND NARRATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY
In photography a story can be told in as little as one image or it can be told in several images. In both cases context and narrative are two essential ingredients of the storytelling process.
The visual communication of the story will be reached through its narrative and context. Photographer and writer Maria Short (2011) argues that storytelling depends on three factors – culture, time and audience, which together provide the basic context of a story. Short explains that
‘in photography the word ‘context’ can relate to the contents of the photograph, its placement in relation to words or other images, the publication or place in which it is viewed and the broader photographic, social, cultural, historical and geographical context’ (2011: 6).
For example, a title of a story can provide significant context for the viewer and ease the visual communication.
A narrative in photography is formed by connecting events to convey a certain idea. What helps to decipher a certain implied idea in a narrative photography is not only the context, but also signs. The 19th century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce proposed that all communication happens with the help of signs (in Justus Buchler, 1955: 98-119), highlighting three important components of signs that can be characterized as ‘iconic signs’, ‘indexical signs’ and ‘symbolic signs’. In visual, written or spoken communication these signs lead to making connections with things that are not literally depicted. An image of a wolf’s pawprint (indexical sign) in a forest will signify the presence of an actual wolf and create a further connection with danger. Making this last connection is highly dependent on cultural factors. A wolf will signify danger only to those in whose culture a wolf is seen as such.
Time, which provides further context to the narrative, may or may not be of a significant importance to the story, however one thing cannot be denied and that is the fact that
‘photographs show us what happened in front of the lens at a particular time in a specific place. [..] Even if we do not fully understand the processes involved, when we look at photographs we realize that the image before us is tied to the things it represents’ (Steve Edwards 2006: 84).
Sometimes time will not play an important role in a story, for example, stories in children books will normally not give any indication of a specific time and will stick to broader references of time such as ‘long time ago’, ‘somewhen in morning/daytime/evening’, etc, but will not focus on indicating an exact date of an event. In some other cases it can be the opposite – time can be of an importance, for example, when the story is about depicting a specific event in past/present/future, like narratives based on historical events and true-stories.
Lastly, a storyteller may have a specific audience in mind when creating a story, which can influence how a story is told, for example, a visual story of an accident and medical help will be told in a different way to children than to a group of medical students.
In the end, a viewer, after deciphering the message in a visual story presented through the medium of photography, might perceive the story slightly different than originally intended by the photographer. After all, each viewer will rely on his/her own experiences and beliefs in deciphering a message.
In relation to storytelling and my ongoing project about my local park called Venserpark, I am proposing a visual story called ‘Facing The Enemy’ which is told in seven images.
Fig. 1: Saksens 2021. Facing The Enemy [series of digital photographic images]
A bird in this case is a symbolic representation of any person. The first image sets the mood and reveals the place of the action. Then the viewer is introduced with the main character of the story – the bird who is looking at his own reflection in water. The bird doesn’t recognize himself and instead sees ‘an enemy’ who scares the bird. At that point the bird decides to attack the enemy and dives into the water trying to catch the enemy. The bird disappears under the water. The last image shows that what is left is only a feather (indexical sign) of what was once a bird. The story is not meant to be perceived literally, but metaphorically. Sometimes we are our own biggest enemies, not being able to recognize that we ‘dig our own hole’ (metaphorically speaking), which in return will sooner or later destroy us (you reap what you seed). In this visual story time doesn’t play a significant role, but the story does rely on an assumption that the viewer will be able to make these metaphorical, symbolical connections in his mind, otherwise the story risks to be understood literally, hence losing the intended meaning. The title of the story gives a hint of what the story is about and eases the process of deciphering the message.
LIST OF REFERENCES
EDWARDS, Steve. 2006. Photography: A very short introduction. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
PIERCE, Charles Sanders. ‘Logic as Semiotics: The Theory of Signs’. In Justus Buchler (ed.). 1955. Philosophical Writings of Pierce (98-119). New York: Dover Publications Inc.
SHORT, Maria. 2011. Context and Narrative. Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2021. Facing The Enemy [series of digital photographic images].