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Narratives: Back to the Future?


I had the chance to visit the Photography Festival in the Belgium town of Knokke-Heist. The festival has been around for quite some years now, and I used to be an annual visitor up until some 8 years ago, during the years I installed the World Press Photo exhibition for the festival.

So, this year it was a kind of renewed acquintance. The title this year was promising: Haute Africa, and the various artists on show all had works related to fashion, and the fashion industry on the continent. According the festival brochure “Haute Africa provides a unique perspective on the relationship between uses of fashion and political systems, cultural identity, westernization, religion, and gender on the current African continent.”

I don’t want to discuss to what extend you can see all these elements in photographs, as I want to focus this blogpost on something else: the series that were shown at the festival, and if some kind of classification coudl be possible to understand their construction. I am interested in classifying the different stories, as we do the same with any collection of words: they are dictionaries, poems, novels, non fiction, shoppinglists or facebookupdates.

The series on show all around the beachtown of Knokke-Heist are sometimes hard to find, but as this is not a review or critique of the festival, I will not go into these kind of details. Suffice to say the curators found great works, and the festival has a pleasant open atmosphere.

I mention the festival as during my visit I realized something about photographic series. It seems they exist in five formats: Chronologies, Typologies, Portfolios, Catalogues and Narratives. The formats are not related to the contents of the series or the photographs, each of these can be both fiction as well as nonfiction. These five formats are that: formats, they don’t say much about the contents of the work, but about the way they transmit that contents to the viewer.

A Chronology is for example the famous sequence of the building of the Eiffel Tower. A typology in this sense is not limited to the strict series of photographs as created by the Bechers, but extends somewhat to include all sequences of interrelated and very similar images. A portfolio is then a collection of photographs that each exemplify one particular aspect of a certain idea, concept, or situation. A catalogue is similar to a portfolio, but the consideration is different, the selection is a collection of ‘best of’ images: the most famous, the most beautiful images go together and together create the catalogue. A narrative goes one step further, whereas in a catalogue or portfolio each image holds the same weight, in a narrative there is a clear hierarchy between each image: there is a beginning, a middle, and end, and somewhere towards the end there is a climax: and all images and their sequence are in the ‘service’ of this climax, which is in this sense, the most important image, or sequence of images.

When looking at the series presented at the festival in Knokke-Heist, and I have to admit I did not see all the works, but I saw mostly typologies, and portfolios, perhaps one or to catalogues. But, with the possible exception of Héctor Mediavilla’s work on the Sapeurs in Congo, I did not see narratives, neither poetic nor documentary or non-fiction.

Generally, it seems, most photographic series are presented as typologies, portfolios, or catalogues, (I did not see any chronologies in Knokke Heist), and though I have no objection to any format as such, it seems to me that some stories just need to be told in a different way. Also, do I need to see another series of women, men, youngsters in similar poses, printed large, presented as a row of photographs? Has photography, and the way it is able to communicate changed that little over the years? Not all stories are fit to be presented as typologies or catalogues. Not every story can be told as a novel, sometimes you need non-fiction to get the message across. I think narrative as a form, either fiction or non-fiction, similar to the picture essays from the so-called heydey of photojournalism by publications such as LIFE, or LOOK can be a direction for contemporary photography that photographers and curators alike need to explore if they want to help photography as a medium to move forward.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy the festival here, I saw great work like an amazing set of portraits by Jim Naughten, an emotional and powerful series by Jehad Nga, a quircky and playful series by Vivianne Sassen, and several series I had the honor of including myself in the two editions of LagosPhoto I curated, by Mediavilla, Sabelo Mlangeni and Jodi Bieber. If you happen to be near the Belgium coast, it is worth the walk through the town.

For more information on the festival: www.fotofestival.be



Can photographs convince?

Whereas it seemed sufficient to take interesting or good photographs twenty or thirty years ago, today the situation has fundamentally changed. It is now easier to take good pictures than to write, it is easier to share photographs that to write a story. An iPhone and a 3G network are sufficient for a 4 year old to do the job. We are addicted to calculating the numbers of photographs on facebook, and at the same time we seem to ignore the basic reason for these numbers: the simplicity of the action. The effect is indeed that taking an interesting picture is no longer enough to make any impact. The context in which that picture is seen however, is essential in defining how it will be read.


I am not really a theorist of photography, I consider myself more a critic, in fact. But one thing that has caught my attention in reading theories, by Sontag, Barthes, and others, is that they seem to focus mainly on the single image. I might be wrong, but when Sontag writes ‘photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deductions, speculation, and fantasy.’ Indeed, she admits that ‘Only that which narrates can make us understand’. It seems to me that she ignores the context in which the image might be seen. For me personally the context in which I see an image practically defines how I will read it. Seen on facebook, a museum, a magazine, a portfolio review with the photographer at the other end of the table, with or without text, the images that surround the photograph, can all steer how my interpretation or understanding of the photograph, and the situation it depicts. An isolated picture indeed cannot explain anything, but a picture is never seen completely isolated. It is obvious that a text can provide context, but photographs in a particular sequence can come a lot closer to a a ‘narration’ than Sontag seems to admit.

Indeed, last year’s discussion of Paolo Pellegrin’s photograph in his series on Rochester of the man carrying the rifle, and how that particular image was understood, was partly due, I think, due to the place it had within the edit of that series.

The idea of context, how the reading of a particular image can be steered by the context in which it is shown, seems to me a subject that deserves more study and understanding.Hamlet,_Shakespeare,_1676_-_0042a

In this sense, also, photography and text are closely related. The order in which you put a certain set of words will decide the meaning of the sentence. But not only that, a brilliant sentence that is buried in a novel with otherwise incomprehensible phrases is not likely to be noticed. An interesting quote by a famous playright on a wall in a museum carries a different weight than a brilliant quote by an unknown poet on his facebook wall. Editing of photobooks is more than sequencing images so that they are visually pleasing, an edit can carry the viewer into the story. Photographs cannnot explain literally, but the order in which images are placed affects how they are read, and how their contents is understood. Photographs in context, I am convinced, can narrate, and therefore convince.

Towards a visual language?

Two significant and relevant people in the photographic scene have been contributing their lines of thought on ‘photography lately.  Even if they differ in nuance, their common starting point seems similar: in photography, the photograph is actually a by-product of the process called photography. Instead of a person, (the photographer) it is the camera (or seeing machine) that holds the power, as it is not the image that is defining, but the process itself.

I am talking about Paul Wombell who curated the Mois de la Photo in Montréal last year, and Trevor Paglen who is the current blogger at the influential blog of the photography museum in Winterthur (and whose work was exhibited by Wombell in Montréal).

Their approaches are relevant, interesting, and I cannot say I disagree to anything they say. But somehow, I feel I need to add something to the debate, and I want to thank the people at Hatje Cantz for giving me that opportunity, on this platform.

We, editors, curators, photographers, critics, writers, are trying to make sense of the situation we have found ourselves in since Sontag wrote ‘On Photography’; where everyone is taking, sharing, and liking pictures continuously. The numbers of pictures that is being taken, tweeted, uploaded, is mind-blowing. In that sense, it can surely be helpful to no longer look at the product of photography (the picture) but at the process, the instrument or seeing-machine that creates the picture. Because, as Paglen points out: it is not only us iPhone holders who photograph, satellites search for crashed airplanes using photography, traffic control photographs car’s number plates, etc etc.

I do propose however, we do not dismiss the end product of the process all that easily. For me, the picture is still at the center of the mass of photography: I realize I am leaving out a part of photography which is completely treated automatically and that my thoughts only apply to those pictures where somewhere in the process there is a human intervention.

For me, photography is primarily a medium, a way to communicate, to transfer information from one person to another. Just following this line of thought, I see photography as a visual language, an idea that is far from new or shocking, I realize all too well. However, in my practice as curator, consultant, and teacher, I hear many people paying lip service to this idea without accepting the full consequences. If photography is a language, its practitioners will have to learn and follow the rules and structure of that language. In communication, you cannot experiment, the risk of being misunderstood is just too great. Also, if you start with this idea of communication, what you have to say is in fact more important than how you say it. Practitioners in photography seem preoccupied by the format, and not by the contents of their message.

Photography is a visual art, but somehow I see much more similarities between photography and literature than between photography and other visual arts. And if I follow through this line of thought, we can perhaps start to make a better sense of all the photographs that surround us in this visual era. Instead of who of how they were made, or even how and by whom they are being seen, we should perhaps look primarily at what purpose the image serves in the context in which it is presented.


This approach is not so different from how text is viewed, and understood. Shakespeare wrote the most beautiful verses, but the words were already available to him. Put those words in a different context like in alphabetical order for example, and you end with something else completely: a thesaurus. Use a few of right words and put them in on your facebook wall ‘To Be or Not to Be…’ and you’ll receive a bunch of likes, and remarks what a cliche that quote is.

Through this mechanism, we’ll be able to qualify most of the images on facebook for what they are: a way to share an event with other people. The family picture is of importance to the few people directly related to the family. But also, this might allow us to decide which image matter, and to whom. With what intention is the photgraph made, and with what intention is the photograph presented? This might relaunch the debate on intentionality, but now that it is easier to photograph than to write, the intention of the creator or the presentor can be a valuable tool in classifying and understanding the photographs in our world.

As I will be keeping this blog for a month, in coming pieces, I will try and apply this idea in different ways, and I welcome ideas and suggestions to challenge the approach.

This first post is in memory of Per Folkver, friend and photographer from Denmark, who sadly passed away unexpectedly last weekend.


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