Narrative Photo Essay

My heart believes this is true.

A young woman sits on a chair outside a café in Fargo, North Dakota. It’s summer and lunchtime in a college neighborhood. Groups of friends, co-workers, romantic couples all enter or exit the café, yet this woman is alone. She is elegantly dressed. She does not watch the men and women who walk or linger near her chair. Her gaze is down the street. It’s possible she’s watching someone walk away or taking a seat to rest after some difficult conversation. It’s more likely she’s waiting for someone to arrive. She wears a wedding ring. Perhaps a friend. Perhaps a date.

I am lucky to get a photograph.

Why do I find the picture of this woman compelling? She is the only one on the street this day who seems to be living a question. I don’t know any of the people who walk by her, they are as mysterious to me as Europa, but looking at them I also don’t wonder. I know their stories well enough. This woman, though, wants something, waits for something. I have no idea what that something may be. She opens a space for me to wonder.

I am told there is no such thing as single-image narrative photography. There are moving pictures, yes. Movies can tell a story. And a series of photos can tell a story as people and things in the pictures change places—even a diptych will be enough. But a single image is, by definition, “still” photography. Still is the opposite of narrative, right?


Permit me to come at this from a different point of view. I remember reading, somewhere in high school, a wonderful short story written by Ring Lardner about 1925 titled “Haircut.” The story is a monologue by a barber, written in the second person (“you”) as if you—the reader—are in the barber’s chair and he’s telling you stories. However, you realize very soon that the barber doesn’t get it. He is either morally blind or just plain dense. Very soon you—the reader—understand more than any information that’s actually on the page. So here is a question—where is the story? A literary critic would tell you the real story is in the reader’s head. I remember being thrilled when I realized what a reader was actually doing and there are actually as many versions of “Haircut” as there are people who have read it.

In literary studies there is a whole field called ”Reader-response” that takes up this question. The reader/viewer/listener is central to art-criticism in every form. And we can expand how we understand the act of taking photographs from listening to our colleagues who are writers, musicians, painters, dancers.

As a writer, I have learned about the cadence of sentences from my years as a drummer. As a photographer, I have learned about composition from my years as a writer, populating stories and essays with minor characters, subplots, settings, dramatic tension. In writing, these elements all enhance the narrative.

This is important because so many people believe there is no such thing as single-image narrative photography. I disagree. Not only do I think the single-image can be narrative, I think to believe so changes everything about how we can seek out and compose a photograph.

Think about the famous Steve McCurry photograph ”Afghan Girl.” Why is that picture so compelling? It’s a headshot—nothing more. The traditional garb is a nice touch, yes. And she’s got great eyes. Technically, the lighting is nice and the cropping highlights the eyes. All pretty normal stuff. But we cannot stop looking at that picture. Why?

The reason is all the information we—the viewers—bring to the photograph. This is a young woman in Afghanistan, during war, in a place that does not value women. We think she looks afraid, worried, terrified. Of what might happen? Of what she’s already seen? Both? We don’t know—and that not knowing is exactly the point. We fill in the narrative with our own understandings. The power of the photograph is not only in the photograph itself. That photograph provokes a type of wondering I am going to call narrative.

Think of another icon, the 1947 Robert C. Wiles photo of Evelyn McHale after she had jumped from the observation deck of the Empire State building. Her body crushed the top of a limousine, yet she looks perfectly composed. Her face looks serene. Her clothes are unruffled. Why is this photo so good? In our minds, the distance between how she looks and what we’re really seeing needs to be resolved. We can’t help but wonder who she was, what brought her to despair, what caused her to jump. Intuitively, we believe we would have liked this woman. We try to imagine her life. We create a narrative that may or may not be true—that part doesn’t matter. Looking at the photo, we tell ourselves a possible story.

Think of the painting, ”Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” by Pieter Bruegel. We know the Icarus and Daedalus story, but the painting catches us by surprise. That tiny little splash in the corner is not how we imagined it would be. We are forced to create a new, more detailed, more troubling narrative. And who is this guy in the center of the frame, head down, tilling his field, who is missing everything? What we think we knew is completely redone.

Think of the Edward Hopper painting ”Nighthawks.” Who are these people? How did they come to be there? We linger, wondering, creating a story.

Narrative does not mean drama. A picture of an eagle grabbing a fish out of some lake is dramatic and engaging, but there isn’t a bit of that story we don’t already know. Likewise, narrative does not mean the ability to create a deep emotional response. A picture of some wonderful mountain range will always make me pause, mostly because I live on the flatland prairie, and a picture of a supercell thunderstorm or a person hanging over a chasm will make me inhale and wish I was there, but I don’t wonder when I look at those photos as much as I feel.

Writers talk about narrative using terms like “forward motion.” And for photography I think that’s close, though it would be easy to think every picture of someone running or otherwise at speed is a narrative, which I think is wrong. The wonderful (and now cliché) picture of someone leaping over a puddle shows someone in motion but usually fails to make the viewer wonder what came before, what comes after, and why. In writing, we talk about the difference between anecdote and story. An anecdote is only what happened. Guy leaps over puddle and makes it or does not. A story is why that moment is important. A story takes that leap and puts it in the context of some larger, deeper question.

So often about the best photography we say the photographer “caught a moment.” We invoke Henri Cartier-Bresson and the inevitability of a decisive moment. Listen to those words: “caught” implies motion in some larger, ongoing story; “decisive” implies a moment of change, of import, of history in a narrative arc that begins before the photograph and continues after—not present in the image but certainly present in the mind of the audience. Nothing about any single-image can be called “decisive” unless we have an awareness of the larger narrative.

To say there is something called “narrative, single-image photography” does not diminish other types of photography. In fact, it is likely a mistake to think of narrative photography as something separate from the other types. It’s best to think of narrative as a potential element of all photography. A studio portrait can have a narrative element, even if it’s very small. (Quick: why do we love the Mona Lisa? Maybe because we wonder about the motivation for her smile—we are compelled to create a narrative.)

Landscape photos can have a narrative element, as can architectural and nature pictures. A meteorologist may see in a thunderstorm photo a whole world of forces moving, twisting, changing, creating a narrative none of the rest of us see. Certainly, street photography and photojournalism have the most innate possibilities for stories, but they can just as easily serve only as evidence or anecdote. Think of photos from Iraq and Vietnam. And then think of photos from Barcelona or Rio. Photojournalism often offers an act of storytelling. Street photography’s narratives rely on either inherent mystery or on the viewer’s understanding of context.

So, here is what my heart believes: narrative photography is the ability—and intent—to photograph an open question. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, speaking about writing: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” As photographers, it’s possible to capture that wanting.

Narrative photography is the intent to capture a question and invite the viewer to wonder the world of possible answers.

—W. Scott Olsen

W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary magazine Ascent. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers: Photographs and Essays at Home and Abroad.

October 30, 2016

Elena Martinique

A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

With a power to evade mental defenses, change attitudes, or engage emotions, narratives affect people in such powerful and increasingly well-studied ways. The 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. Increasingly, we are overrun with the notion of narrative photography, an idea that photographs can be used to tell a story. Some would say that the power of narrative is in the essence of all photography, while others would argue that photography is strictly a non-narrative medium for its irreducible temporality. Yet, when discussing this subject, it is very important to define the very notion of a narrative.

Defining the Narrative

Storytelling and listening to stories are part of human instincts and human nature. Beginning with the oral tradition and in forms of myths, legends, fables, anecdotes, or ballads, man has been telling stories and listening to them ever since he learned to speak. These were told and retold and passed down from generation to generation as a valuable knowledge and wisdom. When we talk about any form of storytelling, the term narrative always shows up. The Free Dictionary defines a narrative as “a story or account of events, experiences, or the like”. This definition implies that terms narrative and story are interchangeable, but is it really so? The story is usually defined as the chronological sequence of events. The event itself is not a story, it is a moment trapped in time. Even though the story always has a narrative, there are narratives that are not stories. This shows the elusive quality of the term.

According to the American psychologist Jerome Bruner, narrative’s relationship with time and causality is especially important. He pointed out that the narrative is irreducibly durative and that there is no narrative without a timeline. Yet, to think about narrative, however, involves more than reflecting on how a series of events become connected. We also need to think about how something is constituted as an event in the first place. As Allen Feldman has stated “the event is not what happens. The event is that which can be narrated”, meaning that a narrative constructs the very events it connects.[1] Narratives are not found objects and are constructed by participants and observers, actors and analysts. Recognizing narrative as constructions means that we cannot escape the clash of interpretations. One of the narrative Merriam-Webster Dictionary is that it is “the representation in art of an event or story, or an example of such a representation”. This means that a narrative can be about the story – it creates connections to story and storytelling but does not in and of itself have to be a story. It can be the way the story is told.[2]

The Narrative Photography

As something non-verbal in nature, can photography tell a story or create a narrative? The story is a sequence of events unfolding over time, but a photograph is a single moment frozen in time removed from the timeline. Put this way, photography as a medium is almost completely incapable of creating a story. Yet, in her essay Pictorial Narrativity, Wendy Steiner states that while it’s unusual for a single image to tell a story, it has been common throughout the history of arts for an image to imply a certain story or remind the viewer of a story he or she already knows. In this way, the photograph can depict a moment within a larger story, and the viewer is able to draw upon the story he or she already knows. Thus, this kind of photograph can be considered narrative because it recalls a story through association. This is called a staged-narrative photography where images are staged purposefully with the idea of narrative in mind. Gregory Crewdson is a photographer famous for using this kind of approach.

The Professor and Political Scientist David Campell says that “In telling visual stories about the world, photography is narrating the world”, outlining that narrative is something far larger than photography. Yet, the narrative in photography is often connected to the context. The narrative of Dorothea Lange‘s famous photo Migrant Mother becomes apparent only if the viewer is aware that is was captured during the Great Depression.

In the 18th century thesis Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, Gotthold Lessing argued that although painting could not communicate narrative in the sense of telling a story, it could imply drama by aspiring to capture the “pregnant moment”. In photography, this idea thrives as the “decisive moment” first introduced by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his followers. Yet, classics of the decisive moment such as Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare can often be more of an enigma than a story to be read. This often goes for documentary photography. Thus, the viewer is invited to invent a narrative of their own from the elements of the image that becomes a blank canvas for interpretation. In the case of the Alfred Eisteinstaedt‘s famous photograph of a sailor kissing a woman at Times Square after the end of the World War II, it turned out that the narrative general public constructed couldn’t be more further from the truth.

Collages, Sequences and Photo Essays

The narrative without a story can be made through a photo collage. Even though each photo represents a separate event, their juxtaposition can create a narrative relationship in the viewer’s mind. Each viewer can develop their own story by connecting these images in their mind or having a certain collage of emotions. Thus, these images have a narrative since there is a tendency towards a story, even though the actual story is not present. Even though a story requires a sequence of events, the narrative simply requires an implication or reference to story events without those events actually happening. [4]David Hockney broke conventions and challenged the single image, constructing a narrative with multiple images through a collage or a photo montage. He first started making composite images of Polaroid photographs arranged in a rectangular grid, and soon after he switched to regular 35-millimetre prints to create photo collages, physically compiling a complete photograph from a series of individually photographed details.

Narrative’s demand for a sequence of events can be satisfied with a sequence of photographs. The 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge created many sequence photographs in order to study the motion that create a literal and clear narrative. The photographer Duane Michals has created a variety of photo-series arranged in a sequence conveying ideas about love, emotion, philosophy, life and death. One of his most famous pieces is Paradise Regained that shows a recognizable narrative structure of progression. In some other pieces like Dr. Heisenberg’s Magic Mirror of Uncertainty, he avoids using the standards narrative structure, creating works that are somewhat ambiguous.

Narrative can also be created though a photo essay or a photobook. Even though these are rarely read as narratives in the sense of an ordered sequence unfolding over time, photobooks convey an overall concept, theme or idea behind the selection of images that represents a narrative. Through editing and sequencing photographs for a book, the final group of images and the way they are presented can clearly point at a story, a feeling, or an idea. The overall narrative would be the way this all comes together. The approach can vary and connections between images can range from being very specific to quite vague. The famous 18-years series The July Project by photographer Darcy Padilla documents the life and death of one woman. Through thousands of pictures, as well as letters, journal entries, logs of phone conversations and newspaper cuttings, it tracks the blighted life of Julie Baird, capturing in miniature the plight of America’s permanent poor. This approach is quite different from, for example, Robert Frank’s The Americans that dissected the American image and creates a narrative that is more ambiguous and elusive.

Photographs as Clues

It might not be too much of a stretch to say that all photographs allude to some sort of story, however vague it might actually be. 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. Photographs aren’t really entities of their own. Instead, they point at something else, whether that something else is a story, a feeling, an idea, or simply its maker’s expression to affirm her or his presence. Photography can create a narrative, but the most powerful role of photography is its ability to complement narratives rather than express them and frame stories rather than tell them.[5]


  1. Campbell, D. (2010) Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story?, David Campbell
  2. Sundberg, I. (2011) To Plot or Not to Plot. Ingrid Sundberg
  3. Steiner, W. Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, Pictorial Narrativity. Illus, 2004
  4. Anonymous, Photography and Narrative, CPH Mag [October 28, 2016]
  5. Meyer, M. Storytelling Photography Considered Harmful, Photo Mark [October 28, 2016]

Featured images: Robert Frank – The Americans, via; Darcy Padilla – Julie Project, via World Press Photo; Cindy Sherman – Untitled Film Stills, 1977, via

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