Are we at risk of losing photographic narrative of our time?

Photography has evolved since the adoption of mass-consumer market digital-photography at the beginning of the 21st century and especially so with the emergence of the age of social media and 'smart' devices, shortly thereafter. Is narrative photography under threat as a result, and if so, to what extent are we at risk of losing a narrative of our time, now and for the benefit of those in the future, with contemporary photography?

A photograph looking down Shaftesbury Avenue from Cambridge Circus in London. The photograph was taken c.2018.
Cambridge Circus. c.2018.
Published: 24 Sep 2019 | Updated: / by Evan Skuthorpe

As the millennium came and went, the amateur photographic world began a journey of unconscious transition from the familiar and ubiquitous nature of film photography and film cameras, negatives and prints, to something that would change the way we collectively record, explore, create, document and express ourselves ever since. It was just a few short years into the first decade of this new millennium when photography set forth on its latest and most recent evolutionary tangent, at first slowly, and then very soon after, quite rapidly. This new century bore witness to the growth in popularity and the widespread adoption of megapixel-based digital-photography in the mass-consumer market, as if it were the latest fad that people simply had to participate in. Yet this wasn't just a fad that would fall by the wayside, it was here to stay. People the world over were purchasing the latest digital cameras and ever-growing-capacity memory cards to go with them. Not only for the advanced technology but also for the pure novelty of this new 'digital' photography where one would never have to buy a roll of film again and could view and share their 'snaps' on LCD screens over and over. Photography suddenly seemed limitless and open.

Within just a few short years after that initial adoption of digital photography began, the apparent evolution of the photographic odyssey continued apace, further and faster still. The emergence and growth of the age of social media coincided with the arrival of 'smart' phones and later, computer tablet devices, both of which were capable of capturing and sharing photographic images. The future was here and the new immediacy of digital photography and the potential for storytelling was self-evident.

Yet, just as digital photography had initially seemed 'limitless and open', and social media a cultural phenomenon that enabled open sharing and participation, evidence was beginning to emerge that photography was now also becoming disposable and forgetful. Photography had become ubiquitous - a throwaway from nights out, social gatherings and self-reassuring pictures of one's own image, born no doubt, in insecurity. Was photographic narrative now under threat from the sheer weight and volume of photographs now being taken and shared?

In this essay, we will explore notions of posterity and legacy as they relate to the concept of 'narrative' photography, against a backdrop of changes in behaviour in camera usage, resulting from digital photography, social media, and an emerging 'generation' of practitioners new to photography since this phenomenon took hold. Crucially we'll look at the resulting creation of the non-narrative 'single-image'.

We will then seek to answer the question, that; in our contemporary age, whether narrative in photography has been lost as a result of the development of both digital photography and its near-symbiotic relationship to social media, and more importantly, whether we at risk of losing a narrative of 'our' time, now and for the benefit of those into the future.

Lastly, this essay will draw the conclusion that narrative is under threat and will discuss ways in which we can address this threat.

The emergence of digital photography and social media

The problem with the vast majority of today's mass-digital-photography is that it is just terrible. A smartphone photo is snapped, in-app filters are applied, then it's shared across social media to much fawning and admiration in the way of 'likes'. Yet it's not the photograph that people are liking, it's the subject matter in the photograph. That plate of pretentious food, someone's ugly cat, that pouty-lipped narcissist woman-child. It is this, that is the 'image' of our time and representative of who 'we' are.

When it comes to contemporary image making, most people now snap first, and then, they take things in, later. After the event. "The urge to document has nested itself in the lizard part of our brains and produced a reptilian tic ... This probably wouldn't bother me much except our results are generally atrocious and that simply shouldn't be the case, considering that we're exposed to more photos than ever before" says Cameron Watson, writer of photography, before adding that it's "rather ridiculous that so many people spend so much time taking so many bad photos" (Watson, 2018). This sentiment couldn't be truer - never have 'we' had so much ready access (and practice) to create a photograph, and exposure to other photographic works by way of the Internet, social media, and even through the ever-present nature of advertising photography we see everywhere, and yet, 'we' are still so bad at it.

For those new to photography in the age of social media, the lack of narrative-driven work is inherent with the social media-minded focus and the need for instant gratification via the 'single-image'. Photographer and writer Grant Scott addresses this in an essay for UN of Photography where he describes a 'generation' struggling with the concept of narrative. He compares the character limit of the 'tweet' to the attention span of the modern photographer, which results in the 'single-image' and reduces our ability "to develop complex and nuanced storytelling" (Scott, 2016). His reasoning is sound but falters with the assertion that it's a 'generation' issue i.e. young people. It isn't generational, but simply an issue of many people both young and old, being new to photography during this digital era. The creation of these photographs, the 'atrocious', badly composed and non-thematic mass-photography equates to this: a lack of photographic seeing - with ready access to digital cameras. The proliferation of these photographs equates to: non-discerning audiences - with ready access to social media. This cycle is self-perpetuating. So we may ask, if a photographer is unwilling to "inject some semblance of art" into what they're trying to shoot, then why bother at all (Watson, 2018)? Ignorance (and the influence of existing in a visual echo chamber) perhaps.

A photograph by Bruce Gilden, taken between 2012 and 2014. The photograph reveals a man's face saturated by the camera's flash.
Figure 1.
(Source: Gilden, Face, 2012-14)
Susan Sontag declares that nobody ever exclaims "isn't that ugly! I must take a photograph of it." (Sontag, 1977 p.85) yet 'Face' by Bruce Gilden, documents exactly that - people who don't fit the convention of 'attractive'. One reading of this image might be the contrast with the idealised image we often see depicted and shared on social media.

A modern practice in contemporary photography is the inevitable and perpetual storing of photographs on computers, in the 'cloud', on digital camera memory cards and on the internal flash memory of smartphones, with few if any physical prints made and fewer-still photographic tangibles like negatives and slides. Sean O'Hagan of The Guardian says "I have never printed a digital photograph. They are stored on my hard disk in their hundreds, maybe thousands" explaining that this causes him "vague anxiety" (O'Hagan, S. In: The Guardian, 2013). This intangible nature of modern photography places our history and legacy at risk. Technology writer Jemima Kiss talks of losing computer hard drives and the content within - "in the digital world, easy come, easy go". When it comes to preserving our legacy for posterity, this is a cavalier attitude. Kiss also states that when we have too much information, it becomes unmanageable and impossible to access – "similar to Dunbar's Law" (Kiss, J. In: The Guardian, 2013) - the interrelationships of a group of people and how they all connect to each other, or in this case, how digital photograph files connect and where they are situated. In narrative terms, this issue of 'too much information' is not helped by digital photography and social media – where images are taken, stored, or shared in great volume, and then promptly 'lost' in the depths of the Internet. Social media as a tool for photography is flawed also. It is summed up well by O'Hagan - "an appreciation system based on popularity over quality, and social skills over talent" (O'Hagan, 2018). In other words, it's where algorithms promote terrible images that non-discerning viewers determine as being worthy of a 'like'. And so goes the cycle of 'good' (read popular) photography - drowning out more considered work. "The worst photo you can take today will be fascinating in 100 years, exclusively because it's 100 years old ... Nobody gives a damn that you went to brunch" (Watson, 2018).

Ironically, in attempting to photograph every waking moment for social media, we become indifferent to the actual 'waking moments' (Watson, 2018) of the lived experience. Too many images, and constant exposure makes us numb to the world around us and Watson makes this point effectively - "you spot a legless Syrian child on the front page of one of the six remaining newspapers on earth ... and you feel... nothing" (Watson, 2018).

"Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs" declared Susan Sontag before reminding us of the origin of the 'calotype' patented by Fox Talbot, where 'calotype', from kalos, means beautiful (Sontag, 1977 p.85). But this isn't true! Historical photographs often revealed an ugliness to audiences i.e. war and death (Donald McCullin) or poverty (Ron McCormick). While contemporary photographs often evidence the modern cultural phenomenon of narcissism and self-interest (in the form of pouting social media 'selfies'). A more sympathetic view of this might be - that anxiety takes over when someone is about to have their photo taken "because they fear the camera's disapproval", so they seek an "idealized image, a photograph of themselves looking their best" (Sontag, 1977 p.85). This would explain how photographers using social media compose, take, process and share the 'selfie'. An 'ideal' (or idealised) image of themselves born ultimately in insecurity or from a need for approval – an interesting study for psychologists, but out of scope in this investigation. Sontag suggests that photography comes down to two different imperatives "beautification" and "truth telling" (Sontag, 1977 p.86) and we see this oxymoron in the 'selfie'.

An image by Morten Barker, created in 2017. The image reveals a scene from a popular movie 'Platoon' devoid of any people.
Figure 2.
(Source: Barker, Platoon, 2017)
Familiar landscapes in Barker's work, re-worked scenes from popular war movies tell a story of memory and life, via way of a the fimiliar and the uncertain.

Grant Scott writes of the many student photographers whom have only ever seen their images on LCD screens at the size dictated by their device. He also highlights his belief that students should move away from the computer screen when editing (Scott, 2016) and that this often comes as a revelation to these photographers. He suggests that education (presumably non-academic) could be at fault, as narrative "is pushed to the back of the educational queue in favor of technical skills, post-production proficiency and other photographic aspects" (Scott, 2016). Whether this is true of all educational courses is of course debatable, but for digital-era practitioners (or those just taking 'selfies') the notion of printing and sequencing is likely new.

In her article Are We Taking Too Many Pictures, Tiffanie Wen references a professor of psychology, Linda Henkel of Fairfield University, whom found that taking pictures can hinder the ability to later recall details, which Wen says is due to taking "excess" photos (Wen, 2015). Henkel suggests that people "treat the camera as a sort of external memory device". Though we might instead say, it is a case of 'looking vs photographing' i.e. the act of involving oneself fully in the moment rather than unintentionally disassociating ourselves via means of a camera device for the act of recording. Wen references another professor of psychology, Kimberly Wade whose research suggests that older generations use cameras as tools for memory, while younger people take photographs "as a means of communication" (Wen, 2015). Henkle seems to agree, "look at Snapchat" she exclaims, "users are taking photos to communicate, rather than to remember" (Wen, 2015). This all suggests that photography has become multi-faceted, with different audiences each having forged their own use for the medium. Wen goes on to say that thanks to social media, we've also altered the way in which we remember our documented experiences (Wen, 2015). Her antidote - "if you're on vacation and enjoying some beautiful site, take a couple pictures and put the camera away" (Wen, 2015). This is advisable for many of us, as ironically, "our impulse to capture ... helps us forget what we're trying to remember" (Watson, 2018). Evidencing this further, Cameron Watson says, "by the time we show up to take a picture of Pisa's tower, we've already seen it dozens of times" (Watson, 2018). This pattern of behaviour is analysed very well in The Human Zoo but is again beyond the scope of this work. Thanks to social media, photographs have encouraged the behaviour of replication even more.

A photograph by Martin Parr, taken in 1990, at Pisa. The photograph shows tourists all enacting the same pose - holding up the leaning tower.
Figure 3.
(Source: Parr, Italy. Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, 1990)
Familiar and repetative patterns of behaviour are on display in this photograph - the 'photographing of something' in order to tell the story of it later, rather than 'living in the moment'.

When we're presented with our past, repackaged ready to be shared all over again, by the automated algorithms of our social media accounts, the value of our past is cheapened. As Watson points out, "the trick with nostalgia is that it takes time and shoeboxes and dust to have any impact", adding that to our collective detriment, we feel a compulsion - a "nostalgia for the present" (Watson, 2018). The instant 'look at this/look at me' mentality of social media-based photos means that 'instant nostalgia' is perpetuated allowing us to 'look back on' events that happened just 30 seconds ago. A side-effect of constant social media sharing is that any 'story' an image (or sequence of images) might hold becomes old news the moment they're shared - as if at the bottom of a heap, while more and more images are thrown on top at an ever-increasing rate. All of which will eventually be forgotten or deleted. While our appetite for instant-gratification drives the creation of next photograph and the next social media post and the next share. The risk to creating a photographic narrative of our age becomes clearer.

We've seen how photography has changed with the advent of social media and digital photography, and how both go hand-in-hand. In a recent statistic, O'Hagan mentions that 350m photos are added to Facebook per day, and likewise over 95m videos and photos on Instagram (O'Hagan, 2018). It is unlikely there is much intended narrative in this immense trove - and for all the intended narrative that does exist, it is now near impossible for it to be told or read. "For every photographer with an eye for artistic merit, there are hundreds, probably thousands, using the camera without any notion of art" – Walker Evans (Williams & Bright, 2007 p.199). If Evans' statement were made today, it would likely boast in the millions and billions respectively. There is also a wonderful irony in that during a time of the greatest "photographic plenitude" we're now at a point of photographic exhaustion, raising the question that if through its own ubiquity, whether photography has lost meaning in the era of overwhelming digital-image overload (O'Hagan, 2018).

We might ask, with all these images, the good and bad, the single-image and narrative-based - are they to be lost in the annals of yesteryear among the billions of other images? If not, then lost through eventual failure of technology, like a dropped and damaged smartphone, a misplaced laptop, or a failed hard drive, all filled with photos and memories, gone forever? If not those, then surely due to the sheer mind-boggling and inaccessible volume of it all.

Narrative in photography

Along with losing narrative photography, there is also the danger of what might colloquially be called 'burnout'. The immediate nature of digital photography can lead us to become tired of the practice and medium, of photography. Artist Grayson Perry attributes his falling out with photography after the adoption of digital, and he questions whether it is age, laziness or because of certain clichés. He describes a scenario where smartphones have created a "forest of glowing screens" that are "ubiquitous" in modern society, be it in galleries, at events or in museums. Perry concludes "maybe I'm a snob, but it's put me off photography" (Perry, G. In: The Guardian, 2013). Perhaps this digital photographic overload is the crux behind what O'Hagan identifies as a growing interest in traditional, slower, forms of photographic culture. Over the last 10 years or so, photography fairs and festivals have been resurgent around the world and with a specific niche on photobooks, which O'Hagan describes as a "vibrant arbiter of photographic culture" (O'Hagan, 2018) mostly driven by a younger audience. Though one might question, in an age of social media and digital-based photography, with a 'younger audience' 'native' to digital photography that is only increasing in numbers, is this resurgence a passing fad?

A photograph of a woman, man and child at the beach, by Trish Morrissey, photographed in 2007.
Figure 4.
(Source: Morrissey, Katy McDonnell, 2007)
In Trish Morrissey's series 'Front', one reading of the work might be the story of the female role in the family group, and the interchangeable nature of the individual filling that role. The same for all people within it, really.

Social media has taken its place in contemporary photography as a 'digital diary' for anyone online to see. It was roughly 50 years ago that Sontag suggested the 'close-up' was photography's "most original method of seeing" (Sontag, 1977 p.90). Not anymore. Much of this modern 'imagery of the self' follows a familiar pattern - a young woman dressed up (or dressed with very little), makeup on, with eyes fixed on the smartphone's screen rather than the lens, while the lens is pointed towards the bathroom mirror - images notable for their amateur approach to the self-portrait. These "home-spun" (Bright, 2010 p.10) images often unintentionally feature an array of toiletries and hygiene products littering the countertop despite the often "over-sexualised" (Bright, 2010 p.10) 'idealised' concept. These scenes unintentionally reveal the 'contrived' and reality in one single frame - "the effort to embellish the world and the counter-effort to rip of its mask" (Sontag, 1977 p.104). Susan Bright asks that when we see photographic self-portraits, do we see an individual, or a "display of self-regard, self-preservation, self-revelation and self-creation?" The very fact this question can be asked tells us that we, the audience, can interpret as we see fit (Bright, 2010 p.9) - as per Erwin Panofsky's three levels of interpretation - our own intrinsic reading means we're all capable of having our own view of the 'single-image'. As with narrative photography, we see but one reading, that of the author's intent, yet we can still interpret accordingly. Each image has a "plurality of meaning" (Sontag, 1977 p.109) said Sontag, adding "captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no pictures can permanently restrict or secure a picture's meaning" (Sontag, 1977 p.108). The 'selfie' image is the result of the non-conceptual photographer using a camera phone to communicate a message of, or about, their body-image – likely based in insecurity, tasteless narcissism, or both. Regardless, "no amount of camera technology will turn a mediocre photographer into a great one, nor, in conceptual terms, will it translate a bad idea into a good one" (O'Hagan, 2018) and we see the evidence of this all-over social media.

Elsewhere, in highlighting a common apprehension amongst photographers considering a narrative approach, author Blake Morrison shares this - "Hugo Williams, who has been taking his camera to parties and book launches for decades and who must by now have one of the great literary photo-archives of our time. But tentatively, decades too late, I have made a start" (Morrison, B. In: The Guardian, 2013). This perception that it is 'too late' to make a start, because others have already made theirs, is a false one. Otherwise all photography would have ceased after Daguerre or Talbot. In his essay Photography is Easy, Photography is Difficult, writer and photographer Paul Graham explores the difficulty, and complexity, in finding a subject to devote one's time and life to documenting (or creating). He ponders "do I walk down the street and make pictures of strangers ... do I only photograph my beloved ... my family, myself ... do I go to a war zone ... or just the corner store, or not leave my room at all?" (Graham, 2009). These well-wrested thoughts of what to photograph is no-doubt relatable to many documentary-minded photographers. Graham goes on to highlight that in reality, we are presented with choices everywhere, and that the issue is all in our heads. He suggests that we slow down, "relax", and that eventually, we will arrive at what we want to photograph, or that through exploration, it will find us (Graham, 2009). The point here is to explore and practice and find what interests us, then to keep at it and see where it goes. Eventually, the idea, the topic, the subject will come. It is during this process that the notion of 'narrative' will begin to take shape. "I doubt Robert Frank knew what it all meant when he started" (Graham, 2009) adds Graham pointedly. Crucially, the more we try to hurry this process, the more it will likely only end in frustration and further anxiety. If we allow time for exploration, it becomes a case of discovering a certain something, perhaps through epiphany - inspiration gained through reading, listening to music, visual stimulation or something else. If one can then focus on that 'something', it may reveal itself and in a personal way, become worthwhile (Graham, 2009). Suddenly the anxiety is gone and our mind focused. As Graham says, 'photography is easy, photography is difficult'. It would then be reasonable to conclude that considered photography defines photographic narrative rather than the instant-gratification sought from a social media-based photographic focus.

A photograph of houses along a remote street at night, photographed in 1999, by Todd Hido.
Figure 5.
(Source: Hido, Untitled #2524, 1999)
The seemingly impersonal 'outside' perspective in Hido's 'Homes at Night' work. Abigail Solomon-Godeau said, "it is precisely this evacuation of subjectivity, the refusal of personality ... the rejection of all the hallmarks of photographic authorship ... that would seem to situate such work logically at the outside" (Solomon-Godeau, 1994). What constitutes a 'refusal' of personal style however is debatable, as surely, all work is tinged by its creator in some way. Perhaps it is those works not conceptually or consciously styled that we might say fit into the 'style' of the amateur.

'Photographic seeing' is the "aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees but neglects as too ordinary" said Susan Sontag (Sontag, 1977 p.89). The talented photographer 'sees' the everyday more deeply than what the average person does and has the ability and presence of mind to photograph it. In her essay, Inside/Out, Abigail Solomon-Godeau investigates the related notion of the relationship between photographer and subject and how this can inform narrative. The 'good' position says Solomon-Godeau, "is thus understood to imply a position of engagement" adding that the 'outsider' position, by contrast, "is taken to produce an alienated and voyeuristic relationship that heightens the distance between subject and object" (Solomon-Godeau, 1994). The intimate versus the distant position of the photographer to their subject and vice versa. Narrative can form from either form of seeing – a literal personal relationship between photographer and subject matter, like Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, or the seemingly impersonal relationship such as Todd Hido's work in Homes at Night.

Grant Scott compares narrative photography to reading and suggests that good writing is founded in reading - "the good, the mediocre, the bad and the truly awful" (Scott, 2016) while asserting that narrative, as it applies to photography, is no different. In applying this logic, perhaps looking at the 'single-image' 'selfie' on social media – all billions of them, will help improve our own photographic practice. We all likely take inspiration from photobooks, galleries and museums - the works of others, so why not social media after all?

A photograph by Stephen Shore shot in 1973 of a shop window with old toy-sized model cars on display.
Figure 6.
(Source: Shore, Slot Car Raceway, Fourth Street, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1973)
'Uncommon Places' by Shore, documenting people and places that define American life - narrative based in observation via straight photography.

In examining the photography of Francis Bedford around the concept of 'loss and longing', Susan Bright explains how his subject matter was similar to the paintings of Joseph Turner and writings of William Gilpin (Williams & Bright, 2007 p.13), documenting the beautiful and the idealised 'old' from the progress of technology and change that was prevalent at the time (the 'new'). This work was "primarily a concern to record for posterity" what 'was' (Williams & Bright, 2007 p.14-15). Bright explains that we now feel a sense of nostalgia for the past when reading this narrative. This 'plurality of meaning', or "double language of photography" illustrates intention vs interpretation (Williams & Bright, 2007 p.14-15). Abigail Solomon-Godeau summarises thusly "it may well be that the nature that speaks to our eyes can be plotted neither on the side of inside nor outside but in some liminal and as yet unplotted space between perception and cognition, projection and identification" (Solomon-Godeau, 1994). Writer Marrianne Hirsch suggests "pictures should not be transparent" adding, "they should not be read only for their documentary value, but as constructions to be taken apart, analyzed, and understood" (Hirsch, 1997). What we decide to photograph and our intentions for it, will not necessarily be what one might read of it in the future. With our own photography in mind, we each all have a desire to preserve what we see of ourselves, to leave a legacy for posterity. In How We Are Photographing Britain, Susan Bright explores national identity and describes what she calls "shared mental images" (Williams & Bright, 2007 p.11). Bright explains that these shared images we all hold, are born of "cinema, television, art, design or photography" (Williams & Bright, 2007 p.11) and no doubt other popular and wide reaching forms that depict 'us' and how we collectively see ourselves, as a nation or culture or sub-tribe etc. Whether these 'shared images' are true or not, is largely "irrelevant" (Williams & Bright, 2007 p.11) however, says Bright, as this collective view informs a common identity and equates to the 'story of ourselves'.

A photograph by Nan Goldin, revealing an intimate 'inside' position.
Figure 7.
(Source: Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983)
The 'inside' perspective lends a more personal narrative approach - "the Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read" said Goldin (MoMA, 2016).

Sean O'Hagan was once told that editing, i.e. the building of a narrative, begins with the very act of photographing (O'Hagan, S. In: The Guardian, 2013), while Grant Scott suggests that the construction of narrative comes not just through photographing, but also through editing (Scott, 2016). These two viewpoints both ultimately suggest that narrative comes from selective shooting and considered refinement and sequencing of images. The importance of printing, be it contact sheets or as individual prints, allows one to see a sequence, or theme, emerge, away from the digital screen of the camera or smartphone. This insight, to slow down and to take 'better' photographs, describes what a great many of us don't do in the age of digital photography - selectively photograph and refine output. The advice applies to sharing photos on social media, rather than every ... single ... photograph ... we ... take.

An image by Chris Dorley-Brown created for his 'The Corners' body of work. The image reveals people and the urban landscape.
Figure 8.
(Source: Brown, The Corners, 2009-2017)
Photographic narrative can be fictional, as with 'The Corners' by Dorley-Brown. Here we still see a certain 'truth' in the scene, yet the image is a series of composite photographs.

Legacy, posterity and the future

The editorial director of the British Journal of Photography, Simon Bainbridge recalls a time where he and a friend took a road trip through the USA, stopping every so often to take photos. Bainbridge recalls how his friend would photograph "something ethereal and profound that I hadn't recognized" despite standing next to each other (Laurent, 2017). Bainbridge is describing 'photographic seeing', something hugely important for narrative photography. Susan Sontag once said that "photography is commonly regarded as an instrument for knowing things" (Sontag, 1977 p.93), yet we might argue that photography is better suited as an instrument for 'telling' things. In self-reflective musings on the topic of family history and narrative, writer and poet Blake Morrison, author of two memoirs on the subject, talks of his childhood and the lack of images documenting his family. Discovering a photograph of his mother after she recently passed away, he says there were no photographs of her family, adding "I felt shut out from her past, and the lack of pictures was part of the reason" (Morrison, B. In: The Guardian, 2013). This feeling of lacking awareness of one's own past strongly hints at the need for broader narrative - one of life and time and an experience that we might seek to document photographically for the benefit of our children. That they have a record of where they came from, and for their children to know their grandparents time, and so on). In describing the importance of photographs taken of his father's garden shed after passing away, Sean O'Hagan tells of the meaning held - something akin to "time and mortality and death" (O'Hagan, S. In: The Guardian, 2013). With the tangible photograph to show or at least aid in the telling of one's life and experience, the need for narrative photography becomes clearer.

"The most enduring triumph of photography has been its aptitude for discovering beauty in the humble, the inane, the decrepit" (Sontag, 1977 p.102). Narrative straddles many artforms and is an important aspect for all creative endeavours - films, written works, lyrics to music, music itself etc. Grant Scott highlights the need to view and practice photography as more than the much-'liked' 'single-image' of social media (Scott, 2016). This is especially true as we often see popular single-images on social media, identifiable by the many hundreds or thousands of 'likes' yet which are devoid of narrative. Scott highlights that if we fail to understand narrative, it becomes impossible to develop as a narrative photographer (Scott, 2016) and perhaps this is why the social media 'single-image' is so prevalent.

What of the future for photographic narrative in the face of social media onslaught? "Storytelling will not die, it will change and evolve but it is human nature to want to learn, to be educated and to understand our world through narratives" (Sullivan, A. In: Laurent, 2017). With this quote, Aidan Sullivan, founder of photo agency Verbatim hints at the continued need of and desire for narrative-driven photography. Photographer Laura Morton talks of the impact photography can have beyond the term of the natural life of the photographer and that of their subject. Morton describes the "incredibly important" need to document the mundane nature of everyday life as "not just for a better understanding of our times, but for individuals in the future to be able to reflect on who they are and how they got there" (Morton, L. In: Laurent, 2017). This sentiment appears to be a common one amongst posterity-minded photographers.

On the subject of analogue photography, Cameron Watson laments the digitising aspect of an analogue-to-digital workflow and decries that it hinders what he sees as being 'relevant' (Watson, 2018). Watson's idea of what 'relevant' means seems to more closely align to one being 'active on social media', and the hunt for 'popularity'. The author fails to consider that slower, more considered work is where value lies and that this slower more considered process is where narrative comes from. The idea that one is somehow 'less relevant' due to shooting in analogue format, can only in itself be relevant if the urge is to have a high turnover of social media activity in the hunt for attention. Shooting lots of digital images, sharing them constantly and perpetuating the 24-7 cycle of 'too much' photography, is exactly where the risk to narrative photography lies and from where bad photography stems. As Francis Hodgson, photography professor says, "if so much photography has the throw-away quality we understand by the snapshot, then surely its opposite might be true: slowly made might imply great value" (Hodgson, 2017). If reading this as 'digital photography' and the immediacy of social media being of far lesser value than slower and more considered narrative-driven work, we could conclude - that with "the digital camera's ability to make an endless number of pictures, it seems like switching to film, which is expensive and considerably slower, would be the best solution" (Watson, 2018). Reading into this further, we could argue that taking far less photos and instead making better ones is key, as with the passage of time comes appreciation, and with age comes value. The antithesis of social media and the 'single-image'.

A photograph of London's Whitechapel area in 1973, taken by Ron McCormick. The photograph depicts the poverty and neglect prevalent at the time.
Figure 9.
(Source: McCormick, Old Montague Street, 1973)
McCormick's documentation of London's Whitechapel in the early 1970s tells a tale of poverty and neglect – it is hard to argue the 'beauty' of this scene.

A once common form of photographic narrative was the slideshow evening. These days, photo sharing apps like Instagram are common, but are less personal and even less narrative-driven. The photobook, credited to Fox Talbot in c.1844 (Williams & Bright, 2007 p.202), has increasingly become the format of choice for "photographers of a serious disposition" (Williams & Bright, 2007 p.205) by contrast, and this aligns to O'Hagan's observation of the resurgence of 'traditional' photography culture. In this resurgence we see the more serious the photographer, the more "the capacity to experiment with the medium" (Williams & Bright, 2007 p.206). In crafting modern photobooks there is greater means to distribute photography than ever before. Though it requires far greater effort than a social media post, the photobook medium is better suited to narrative through the inherent editing and sequencing involved, and therefore consideration of posterity and legacy. Elsewhere, some of the social media 'generation' are blending photography and the web as if they were inherently intertwined, producing a diary for all to see – a new narrative. Famed photographer Stephen Shore says of Instagram, "I find it very satisfying that they're a group of people who look at each other's work every day, and they're all over the world" (O'Hagan, 2018), suggesting the widespread reach of the medium is a positive. In 2006 photographers Patrick Tsai and Madi Ju created a blog documenting their relationship which gathered a cult-like status, with their work recognised critically (Bright, 2010 p.23). According to Susan Bright, the difference with this work on social media over others is that it was intended as "an artistic endeavor rather than merely a collection of randomly posted photographs" (Bright, 2010 p.23). So we see that considered use of social media platforms could be the next incremental-evolution of the photographic artform, similar to the so-called 'colourists' in the 1970s (Schwendener, 2010) where William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz emerged and revolutionized photography. Are we witnessing social media become a possible rival format to the photobook for successful presentation of narrative-based work? Time will tell.

A photograph of London's Commercial Street, taken in 2016 by Evan Skuthorpe. The photograph documents the seemingly forever-changing urban landscape.
Figure 10.
(Source: Skuthorpe, Commercial Street, 2016)
Subject material of a personal interest is one of the driving forces that enables the long-term construction of narrative photography. In this photograph, we see the photographer's local and ever-changing urban landscape.

In his essay Creating Photographic Archives for The Future, author and photographer Grant Scott muses over the issues of storing and preserving both analogue and digital photographic archives. Scott says that it's all too easy for our photographic legacy to become someone else's burden and "therefore too easily dismissed and destroyed" (Scott, 2018). It is a rather depressing thought and suggests that by preserving for posterity, in the interest of our legacy, our work will only be of interest to ourselves in the immediate and near future, and beyond that, only as far as our children and maybe their children. Just as photographs of our forbearers captured in studio photographs or on candid snapshots passed down to us by our parents hold little interest beyond the curiosity of older fashions, stern expressions and a time and world long-since-passed. Perhaps this is because without context (due to a lack of a narrative), any story that these photographs could collectively tell, fail to do so. Scott says, it is this "emotional, intellectual and aesthetic connection with that material creates within us a desire for it to remain after we do" (Scott, 2018) and perhaps without a rational of whether others actually care for our work, as we do, we believe that because our work is of interest to us, they will be for others too. It is clear that 'narrative' is the context needed for future generations to retain, or develop, an interest in our story.

Scott adds that even photographers whom have their work stored in museums and archives might find their work beyond the view of all but the most dedicated researchers. Another disheartening thought perhaps, but proof perhaps that narrative photography is of personal importance. We might argue that this personal importance is more important than fame. Scott says, "the future of our photographic history is therefore filled with hope, but few realistic options" (Scott, 2018). For those of us lucky enough to have cultural and critical success with our photography, it appears to be perceived financial or cultural value, by others, that warrants its continued display, writings about and therefore a continued awareness of the work. For the rest of us, within the lifetime of our children or just after, when we're long-since past, our photographic work becomes irrelevant and forgotten, likely destroyed or left to decay.

Just as the Queen song lyric implores, "so don't become ... some background noise ..." (Taylor, 1984) we must create a narrative of our time, for us and for it to live on. In doing so, we must accept the responsibility of curating and archiving our work ourselves.


This essay explored the subject of narrative photography and its relation to posterity and legacy in documenting our time, for the benefit of future generations as well as ourselves.

In this exploration, we looked at the threat of mass-consumer digital photography and the apparent intertwined relationship it has with social media. We discovered that taking 'too many' photos can lead to photographic exhaustion and apathy, while the inherent issues with photographers new to the medium during the era of digital photography and social media became clear. We examined the 'selfie' and the desire for instant gratification and instant nostalgia. We looked at meaning in photography and the building a body of work through the exploration and discovery of a topic important to us, while also delving into 'photographic seeing', the relationships between photographer and subject, and also how editing and sequencing is an important factor in photographic narrative.

Not all of us will have critical or commercial success with our photography, and even for those lucky few who do, their work won't necessarily be visible in the longer term. We discovered that our narrative work shouldn't be about the pursuit of wider recognition and instead should be built on a subject that is important to us - both as a means to give us the drive and energy to explore it in the first instance, and secondly, so that we can maintain the levels of interest required to sustain our efforts in the longer-term pursuit of it all. In doing so, we learned that we can construct a narrative that tells the story of things that matter to us.

We looked at how social media can in fact be used for good, be it as a means of exploring the work of fellow photographers or as a platform for sharing our own. Finally, we discovered the need to produce better, more considered work and looked at methods of photography and presentation that allow for this.

In relation to my own pursuits in photography, the findings of this essay are encouraging. My adoption of analogue photography over digital allowed me to slow down and better develop my own 'photographic seeing', something I felt the inherent nature of digital photography hindered. I've also learned to identify a subject of personal interest. These two things in tandem, I believe, will allow me to create an effective and interesting, and importantly, a tangible long-term body of work. One that will sustain my interest over time. These learnings and my ambition drive me to record my time and existence - that of the urban environment around me in which I live. The work will say "I was here, and this was my time, and these are the things I found interesting". These things I photograph will one day no longer exist and not just in the literal sense of 'progress' and 'change'. I suspect that any interest in my work will likely come well into it the future, rather than now, and likely this interest will come from my own children. Whether the work will hold interest for others will come down to those who are so inclined, but the intention is there. Any reading of the work will be for others.

As for the future of photography - it will continue to evolve in ways we can't yet envisage. The danger to narrative photography will likely forever exist when creators themselves are not inclined to shoot, document and tell the story of a time, place or thing. Only those of us aware and so inclined will produce narrative photography. And so, the disposable 'single-image' will forever continue to flourish. It is ultimately up to us, the practitioners and enthusiasts of photography, to create and provide a means for our legacy and for a narrative to live on for the benefit of those in the future. In this purpose, this essay concludes that we must turn our back on the 'single-image' photograph and be conscious of producing work that tells 'our' story.

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List of Illustrations
  • Barker, M. (2017) Platoon [photograph]. Available at: [Accessed: 19 July, 2019]
  • Dorley-Brown, C. (2009-2017) The Corners [photograph]. Available at: [Accessed: 2 July, 2019]
  • Gilden, B. (2012-14) Face [photograph]. Available at: [Accessed: 13 July, 2019]
  • Goldin, N. (1983) Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City [photograph]. Available at: [Accessed: 13 July, 2019]
  • Hido, T. (1999) Untitled #2524 [photograph] Available at: [Accessed: 13 July, 2019]
  • McCormick, R. (1973) Old Montague Street [photograph]. Available at: [Accessed: 18 July, 2019]
  • Morrissey, T. (2007) Katy McDonnell [photograph]. Available at: [Accessed: 10 July, 2019]
  • Parr, M. (1990) Italy. Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa [photograph]. Available at: [Accessed: 16 July, 2019]
  • Shore, S. (1974) Slot Car Raceway, Fourth Street, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania [photograph]. Available at: [Accessed: 13 July, 2019]
  • Skuthorpe, E. (2016) Commercial Street [photograph]. Available at: [Accessed: 20 August, 2019]


This journal post is an updated, edited and expanded version of my degree essay, submitted August 2019.