Narrative in Photography

Why Narrative in Photography is Not Dead

Who Moved my Narrative?

Narrative in Photography is not dead, it’s simply that the ways we come across photography rarely encourage it. Is social media even capable of sustaining narrative?

This article is a bringing together of several seemingly unrelated strands I have been thinking about recently. Things that I have been doing in my commercial practice and more theoretical concepts dating back to some work I did with Transmedia a couple of years ago.

Teaching Narrative

Creating a narrative in the visual arts is an important skill that was taught at the London College of Printing where I studied Photography, Film & Television in the 1980s. The practice of laying out images and arranging them in order to both tell a story and create a pleasing aesthetic based on design values fed into both Photojournalism and Filmmaking, but is a practice that appears to have been reduced these days to use by photographers exhibiting work regularly. In no other field apart from the substantially eroded photojournalism is it readily apparent that a relationship between images matters. Which is one reason why young photographers struggle to master it.

Technology today feeds us a stream of images, but rarely in narrative form. We edit images one at a time, we experience images on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, one at a time. The narrative is notable for its absence. Except that it isn’t. It simply occupies a different dimension. Browsing a feed on Instagram produces no deliberate narrative at all. However following a user allows us to see a narrative of a kind, often unwitting; a linear view of that individual’s progress along a timeline.

A narrative also exists across multiple platforms and this is a really hard thing to master. The practice of Content Marketing exploits multiple platforms to achieve reach and penetration. Content slips under the radar of ad blockers and allows brands to articulate their stories in ways that native advertising does not readily support. Red Bull is probably the most well-known exponent — videos of extreme sports generating millions of views, cementing the position of the brand as the go-to energy drink for a generation.

Brands, Narrative and Content Marketing

Brands are interested in Content Marketing because it resolves the issue of how they deal with the wealth of platforms and channels that are available to them. Content Marketing produces a structure, a plan and a means of measuring something that would otherwise be uncharted territory.

The premise of successful Content Marketing is to take the messages and stories of a brand and ensure that they are reinforced and disseminated effectively using a set of channels and platforms that reach the required audience. Often the proposition is rudimentary, content that is useful to the defined audience, provided on a website and promoted via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. A very successful example of this type of marketing is the website “The Chromologist” by Farrow & Ball. The Website is a fascinating resource using words, images and video to convey helpful information about the use of colour in home design.

Transmedia Narrative

Moving beyond this approach to combine multiple channels to create a cohesive narrative is an art that is based on the principle of Transmedia. Transmedia storytelling is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies.

To make this work, the story or story experience has to be cohesive. Each separate strand needs to be loosely coupled with the others, but tightly themed. This is similar in concept to a TV serial that contains a separate story every week, but an overarching narrative that is developed and supported by the individual strands. It doesn’t much matter if the audience misses an episode because the architecture of the narrative is stronger than the individual parts. In the same way, if a story is disseminated across multiple platforms, all of the audience will not consume all of the parts. It is important therefore that the platform content stands alone, but also contributes to the larger story.

The contributing factors of a successful transmedia narrative are:

  1. Understanding the audience — who they are, where they hang out, what they like and desire.
  2. The Story — if the story is not well defined then the consumer’s experience will lack cohesion and coherence.
  3. Choice of Content Channels & Platforms — These should be chosen to play to the strengths of 1. If the audience is active on Social Media — that’s where the story is told. The choice of platform within the channel of social media is determined by the audience’s habits.

It is important to realise that Social Media, as a channel running parallel with Television, Radio, Print etc. is subject to the same principles in terms of audience mapping. Just as an advertisement is placed in a TV slot that is attractive to the audience, social media platforms draw different audiences too. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube etc enjoy many commonalities, but detailed analysis is needed to determine where a particular audience is likely to be found.

These principles are pure marketing but apply equally well to transmedia storytelling in any form. A large brand will employ multi-channel marketing on a big scale, using billboards, print, TV and social media to get its story across. Smaller brands tend to focus on Social Media Content Marketing because it is perceived as cheap. Commercial photographers with a good grasp of narrative can find a market in Content Strategy applied to Social Media, however, the business model needs to change for this to happen.

The Challenge for Narrative in Photography

The challenge facing commercial photographers today is that the business model, if not actually broken, is badly in need of attention. As images proliferate, their perceived value has deteriorated. Stock photography eats into commissioned work, Micro-stock drives the price of stock photography ever downwards. Technology delivers better, cheaper cameras and many talented photographers, tied inextricably to the commission model, simply fail over time to deliver a consistent income.

The commission model is inflexible, expensive and increasingly fails to deliver anything more lasting than the output from a single session. What is needed is a long relationship where the photographer contributes over time, bringing their narrative skills to bear on a brand story that exists in multiple channels. This is called Content Strategy and it is this niche, requiring sophisticated narratives, great creative vision and impeccable technique where photography will thrive in the coming years.

My conclusion is that narrative is thriving despite the platform fragmentation we see in the digital arena. Photographers are often accomplished storytellers but need to adapt to thrive. Transmedia storytelling is here to stay and it is an integral component of Content Marketing. The successful photographer of tomorrow will be image-maker, storyteller and marketeer.

Further Reading

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The Photographic Mid Life Crisis

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