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: