Storytelling Photography Considered Harmful

Storytelling and narrative are popular buzzwords among photographers, but photography and narrative are incompatible at a fundamental level. The obsession with storytelling overlooks photography's more practical and powerful uses.

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In a study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly (yes gentlemen, this should be on your nightstand), Amanda Diekman, Mary McDonald, and Wendi Gardner investigated practices surrounding safe sex, specifically condom use, as related by the modern romance novel. Unsurprisingly, they found that, consistent with the 'swept away' myth of spontaneous romance in these novels, condom use was infrequent, always suggested by the man, and often dismissed by the woman. The surprising part of the study is that when they asked women about their reading habits they found that high levels of reading romance novels were associated with less positive attitudes, less past use, and diminished intent to use condoms in the future. Additionally, they showed that simple alterations to the novels to include safer practices changed the attitudes of readers. It would seem that the millions of dollars spent each year on public awareness and sex education are no match for a sultry dime-store story.

But we knew that, right? The power of a story to evade mental defenses, change attitudes, engage emotions, and even convince people to believe patently false facts is common knowledge among advertisers and marketers. Because narratives effect us in such powerful and increasingly well-studied ways, practically everyone in the business of communication is trying to capitalize on the trend by marketing themselves as storytellers. This movement has been especially noticeable among photographers — where once we had lifestyle photographers, family photographers, advertising photographers, wedding photographers, we are now overrun with a large set of 'visual storytellers' and even some explicitly describing their craft as 'narrative photography.'

As we will see, the photograph as a medium is almost completely incapable of expressing narrative. The 'narrative photograph' doesn't exist unless one is willing to stretch the definition of narrative to the point of losing its meaning. By describing photographs in terms of buzzwords like 'narrative' and 'storytelling' we undervalue the powerful role that photographs play in professional communications and their ability to complement narratives rather than express them and frame stories rather than tell them.

Why Narrative?

A narrative is an account of events occurring over time. Despite the simple underpinnings, narrative continues to fascinate theorists and critics because it is so closely intertwined with our identity and the way we understand ourselves and the world around us. Narrative's relationship with time and causality is especially important. As Jerome Bruner (whose definition of narrative I've borrowed) pointed out, narrative is irreducibly durative — you can't have a narrative without a timeline.

Narrative is almost always conveyed in the form: this happened…and then that happened, but it is almost always read: this happened…which caused that to happen. For example, it is almost impossible to read E.M Forster's simple formula for a plot, The King died, and then the Queen died of grief, without assuming that the Queen's grief was the result of the King's death. Why else would they be mentioned in the same breath? But the causal link is our own; it's not in the text.

Authors rarely need to explicitly identify the causal chain. Instead the reader in most cases assigns causation through inference. For someone intent on persuasion, this is a free ride through the audience's natural skepticism because we are not tempted to counter-argue our own inferences. Everything in a storyline can be unassailably true without having any causal relationship between events, but the listener or reader will still link them causally. This is why we see so many simple advertising narratives of the form: a retired couple walks down the beach, they are happy, they look wealthy and attractive, and they also take a particular prescription medication. If the ad had explicitly argued that taking a blood pressure pill would make you wealthy and attractive, it would encounter counter-arguing, resistance, reactance, and probably a lawsuit. But the ad simply identifies a chain of events and lets our minds infer the causation.

Also, recent studies involving brain scanning have revealed that when we experience narratives, the areas of our brain associated with the activity in the narrative light up as if we were experiencing them ourselves. Studies have shown that the conflict-resolution form of most stories releases dopamine which helps us remember the message, that narrative focuses our normally difficult-to-earn attention, narrative encourages emotional involvement…the list goes on for so long that you begin to wonder why one would attempt any sort of rhetorical or persuasive argument in a non-narrative form.

Photography is not a Narrative Medium

It should be clear why professional communicators are interested in wrapping their rhetoric in a narrative framework and, since it's become so popular, it's not surprising that photographers also want on the bandwagon.

But here's the rub: while narrative is irreducibly durative, photography is irreducibly non-durative. A narrative is a sequence of events unfolding over time, but a photograph is a single, almost imperceptibly small slice removed from the timeline, frozen for our consideration. If you were looking for the least narrative medium ever conceived, you would be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than photography.

If you were looking for the least narrative medium ever conceived, you would be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than photography.

Narrative's demand for a sequence of events can be satisfied with a photo-essay, and if you put enough photos together, you end up with film, which obviously is a narrative form. But with the exception of certain formats like chronologically-arranged wedding albums, photo essays are rarely read as narratives in the sense of an ordered sequence unfolding over time. Even the journalistic photo-essay is more often a collection of evocative descriptions than a true narrative — creating photographic storyboards à la Hogarth's Rake's Progress just isn't very common among photographers.

It is possible to convey a narrative in a two-dimensional image, but we almost never see it today. In her essay, Pictorial Narrativity (published in Narrative Across Media, The Languages of Storytelling), Wendy Steiner shows one such example:

Gozzoli's Salome
The Dance of Salome and the Beheading of St. John the Baptist — Benozzo Gozzoli

In this single panel we have a chain of events — Salome dancing for Herod, St. John losing his head, and Salome presenting the head to Herodias — offered simultaneously. Although the order of events is not explicit, Gozzoli's method of mapping narrative time to pictorial space sort of works if you know to look for it, but it can't work in a photograph without methods like multiple exposures or digital manipulation and these are rarely used by 'storytelling' photographers.

While it's unusual for a single image to tell a story, it has been common throughout the history of art for an image to imply a story or remind the viewer of a story he or she already knows. A classic example:

Titian Acteon and Diana
Diana and Actaeon — Titian

Because of it's close relationship to a story, it's tempting to call this a storytelling image. To an audience versed in mythology the story is obvious because of the symbolism — Diana's crescent moon tiara, Acteon's hounds and arrows, etc. But imagine for a moment seeing this image without knowing the story of Actaeon. Rather than an unfortunate hunter stumbling on the bathing goddess, a reader could just as easily take this as a narrative involving a strapping young man who has made good use of his time with the Psychology of Women Quarterly. There's no timeline of events that would let you know he's soon to be transformed into a stag and ripped apart by his hounds. This image is strictly BYON — bring your own narrative. If you don't know the story of Acteon, you won't learn it from this painting because the painting only references the story, it doesn't recount it.

The difficulty that art has with storytelling is not new. In the 18th century Gotthold Lessing investigated painting and sculpture's "problem" with narrative at length in his Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. He arrived at the conclusion that although painting could not communicate narrative it could imply drama by aspiring to capture the 'pregnant moment.' This idea thrives in photography today as the 'decisive moment' promoted by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his followers. But even classics of the decisive moment like Cartier-Bresson's Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare are more of an enigma to solved than a story to be read.

Cartier-Bresson and Eisenstadt
Henri Cartier-Bresson and Alfred Eisenstaedt

Most photography that sells itself as storytelling or narrative functions in a similar way. It either includes enough clues to allow viewers to connect it to a story already in their minds, or it invites them to invent a narrative of their own from the elements of the image. Both are interesting and both have produced great photos, but neither can rightly be called a narrative art form, and neither can take advantage of the psychology that makes narrative so valuable for persuasion and marketing. Using a photograph to depict a story invites the viewer to invent most of the narrative for themselves creating a blank canvas for interpretation, which allows more flexibility than a professional communicator should be comfortable with. Recently, one of the most celebrated 'storytelling' images, Alfred Eisenstaedt's photograph of a sailor kissing a woman on V-J Day in Times Square, has seen a revised storyline that dramatically changes its connotation. The image depends on the audience sharing a similar cultural and historical point of view, but when people start asking who the woman is and questioning her role in the storyline it becomes possible for this photo to transform from an icon of joy to an emblem of sexual assault. Because the image provides no actual narrative, it supports both interpretations.

If not narrative, what then?

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.
The first sentence of The Scarlet Letter — Nathaniel Hawthorne

While narratives are powerful, how we interpret them and how they make us feel changes dramatically with our point of view, our existing preconceptions, and our emotional state when we experience them. Additionally, the nature of narrative requires time to communicate it. The first line of Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter is almost photographic in nature. No action takes place, no specific characters are named, time doesn't pass. It is not narrative, it's description, and it will set the tone for the rest of the book — sad, grey, hooded, with heavy oak and iron. It's a masterful use of affective framing to gently nudge the reader into the right point of view to accept Hawthorne's message. There are many ways to feel about 17th-century New England — you might long nostalgically for simpler times, you might have a detached historical interest, you might think witches are cool— but Hawthorne's nuanced and highly effective description colors our view of the forthcoming narrative before a single event has happened.

Hawthorne has the luxury of the reader's attention, but in commercial communication the attention of the viewer is a precious, limited resource. Frames and affect need to be established before or at the beginning of a narrative and generally require expository descriptions, and historical or character-based context. All of this takes time. Even Hawthorne's economical sentence of 45 words is more than most would read in a commercial message. A photograph, on the other hand, works almost instantly and can take advantage of mental heuristics that shift our frame and color our emotions before we've realized it.

Examine how images are actually used and you will notice descriptive and expository uses — visual metaphor, exploiting the photographs vividness to grab attention, framing, and attempts to influence the viewer's affective response with emotionally-laden imagery. All non-narrative uses. In advertising the use of visual metaphor to indirectly imply what ad copy could never directly say is routine. In much the same way that narrative can imply causation while avoiding the scrutiny of our higher reasoning, imagery can influence our frame and affective state quicker and more directly than durative media. Several theories suggest that there is more than one route into our minds. Information processing models — Dual Coding Theory, Heuristic-Systematic Model of Information Processing, Elaboration Likelihood Model — all suggest that some communication channels enjoy less scrutiny than others and have a privileged route into the parts of our brain responsible for emotion, attention, and memory. Messages that are processed heuristically are consumed quicker, they aren't scrutinized rationally, and they are evaluated emotionally. They go straight for the gut and leave us with impressions, moods, and feelings. The photograph's ability to do this instantly is unparalleled and often goes unnoticed by the viewer.

In one particularly revealing study, Why Smiles Generate Leniency, Marianne LaFrance and Marvin Hecht looked at how they could manipulate judgments on academic misconduct with images of the transgressor. When the photos showed the target smiling, they were more likely to receive leniency in punishment than when the photos didn't show them smiling even though the smiling targets were not seen as less guilty. The simple portraits didn't tell a story, but they were able to color the existing narrative of academic dishonesty in a meaningful way that changed the decisions of otherwise impartial judges. This would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do with words or narrative. It's something to remember for you next mugshot and also a cautionary tale if you think you understand how images effect you.

More importantly, it's something to consider when you produce and use images. Obsessing on the chimerical storytelling function of images distracts from the much more useful descriptive and expository nature of photography that allows it to quickly frame a message and focus attention on desired attributes of your subject. Exposition and description, not narrative and storytelling, are photography's forte. The next time somebody tells you they are a visual storyteller, ask them to show you a storytelling image and have them walk you through the plot.