Narrative and ‘The Tyranny of Story’

The Tyranny of Story, Parts 1-3, BBC Radio 4, August 2018.

I listened to this three part documentary presented by John Harris on BBC Radio 4 as preparation for a workshop run by co-producers Nina Garthwaite and Alan Hall. The workshop was cancelled, but the programmes raised a number of issues of relevance to the development of my project. In an earlier post, I raised questions about the extent to which photographers can be considered to be storytellers. Following up the programmes, I think I now have a clearer position on this, which can help inform my work. A distinction is drawn between whether (i) our lives fundamentally have a narrative structure, or whether, (ii) whilst episodic in form, our lives should, for our own well-being, be rendered as a narrative, or whether (iii) for mutual comprehensibility and engagement our lives can be presented in narrative form, or whether (iv) presenting lives as narratives is, at best, a distraction or, at worst, a damaging mis-representation, that creates unattainable expectations and encourages self-deception. Galen Strawson’s work, which sees life as episodic, and narrative as a misleading construction (see, as a brief introduction, Strawson, 2015), is interesting in respect of the last of these positions.

It is clear that there is a popular demand for stories/narratives, and that, in order to convey a message, narrative form is a powerful resource. Personally, I like telling and listening to stories. They provide a powerful means of communication, interaction and dialogue. Taken into the political and commercial domain, of course, this desire for and attraction to compelling stories can be used to distract and mislead. Reflecting on the decline in MMR vaccination, for instance, the case is made by neuroscientist Tali Sharot (a colleague from UCL) that stories (whatever their foundation) of catastrophic damage to a loved one hold greater emotional appeal than the narrative of the collective (and individual) benefit of eradicating forms of childhood illness founded on scientific research. The puzzle here is understanding the motivation for construction, propagation and subsequent narrative dissemination of these ‘alternative facts’. One argument might be that this is a popular reaction to professional discourse which dis-empowers ‘ordinary people’.

Whilst some photographers might feel that they are revealing narratives, others may see themselves as constructing narratives. I sit more on the construction side of this, but showing respect to, and in dialogue, and possibly collaboration, with the people being photographed. In this, I lean towards a desire to disrupt narrative form to allow different accounts to be explored and to enable new dialogues. Narrative can be powerful in drawing and holding attention, but is not an end in itself, and ultimately if the production of a greater understanding of others, more open dialogues, new forms of knowledge and new ways of knowing are the desired outcome, subversion of established, and expected, narratives is inevitable.

I’ve talked myself out of being a storyteller here, recognising that story can be a valuable resource, hook or medium, but understanding that this has to be undermined in order to create the space for new dialogues. Maybe I’m a teller of provisional and unstable stories (or a provisional and unstable storyteller). In order not to continuously tell each other stories we already know (and that reinforce our prejudices), and to make space for other ways of being and knowing, we need a wider range of resources, strategies and tactics. A way, maybe, of inquisitively making and unmaking, synthesising and deconstructing narratives to produce something new.

By chance, a few days later I stumbled into another Nina Garthwaite project, the Soundhouse at the Barbican. Here, she and collaborators are attempting to bring creative podcasts into public space, in a gallery-like listening environment. I’ll explore that elsewhere, as part of consideration of ways of presenting work, and the potential of the gallery as a space for public reflection and engagement.


Strawson, G. (2015), ‘I am not a story’. Accessed on 29.09.18 at



Week 2: Whose image is it, anyway?

In the legal case between appropriation artist Richard Prince and photographer Phillipe Cariou, both artists appear to have gained in some way from the exposure achieved. This kind of controversy is at the heart of Prince’s practice, and he courts (no pun intended) this kind of attention. Cariou’s work is almost certainly better known than it was previously. Legal actions like this can only come into play when there is some kind of loss (actual or potential) to be compensated. In this case Cariou’s work is not diminished in any sense by Prince’s appropriation. We might be irritated that Prince has ‘made something’ from someone else’s work (both artistically and financially), but the potential for this is not inherent in Cariou’s work. Cariou couldn’t, for instance, have made Prince’s work himself – the ‘value’ (commercially and artistically) of Prince’s work lies in the appropriation and manipulation of the work of others, and in the fact that it is Prince that is doing it (Duchamp’s point with the urinal). These kinds of appropriations and manipulations are everywhere, and we all do it to some extent in our work (I didn’t design or build the C19th colonial building I have just made an image of, and the role in colonial oppression that I might want to convey is, I am sure, no part of the architect’s plan). Aesthetically, I don’t personally like Prince’s work, nor do I find it conceptually significant in any lasting sense. But there are artists, such as Peter Kennard , whose work I do admire (for its directness and clarity of purpose), who work predominantly with other peoples’ images (the bomber used in his piece ‘Conversion’ appears elsewhere in this discussion thread – I don’t think he’ll be suing).

‘Researching reality for me involves ripping photographs out of their context to bring the perpetrators of war and poverty slap bang into the same space as their victims. I want to act as an early warning system, be the canary down the mine. Imagining through images the end result of the direction in which we are heading and picturing people struggling to find another way’ (Peter Kennard in Read and Simmons, 2016: vii).

We are always building on and with something, and I personally wouldn’t want this to be overly restricted by the law (particularly having worked in oppressive jurisdictions where freedom of expression is limited by law).

If it is moral outrage that we feel in seeing Prince’s (and other) appropriations, I don’t think we should turn to the law to do the required ethical work (we’d be constantly in and out of court and consistently not getting the outcome we desire). Whilst recognising that we can’t control how our images (and other creations) are used, we can, through the use, for instance, of the creative commons, signal how we would like our images to be used, and what restrictions or caveats we wish to place (for instance, on whether an image can be freely used for non-commercial purposes, whether we want to be asked and/or acknowledged, whether it can be edited and used in part etc). This doesn’t police and enforce the use of images, but it helps users know when and how they are able to legitimately and without recourse use an image (we do want our images to be seen, right?) and draw a clear(er) ethical line in the sand, so that when those who use and appropriate images cross the line, they do so knowingly. And, of course, if you feel there is any actual or potential direct or indirect loss (financial or reputational, for instance), the courts are ready and waiting, with well trained legal eagles to fight your case (for a price, of course).

Read, M., & Simmons, S. (2016), Photographers and Research: The role of research in contemporary photographic practice, London: Routledge.

Week 1: Reflection

Meeting with a young working photo-journalist as part of the preparation for the module made me feel like a dilettante. It was certainly difficult for him to understand why I might want to develop my photographic practice, independently of any commercial imperative (though he clearly understood the value of political commitment in the production and distribution of impactful work). It was very productive, though, to get some insight into how photographers making very different kinds of images approach their work. It was a pity not to be able to discuss this with others at the webinar (which didn’t run at the time stated, so I had to miss it, and now five hours behind UK, looks like I’ll have to miss the next couple, too).

I’m not a professional photographer, and don’t intend to become one, so I knew that this module would be challenging. I think, though, that I have figured out how to get the most from it, and how, I hope, I can make a constructive contribution. I found the introductory activities a useful way to become acquainted with the work, and lives, of others on the programme, and it was good to catch up again with the people who did Positions and Practices last session. Working in a larger group of people in different stages of the programme is certainly going to be a different experience.

I was able to relate the Max Ferguson’s insight into magazine publication to the dissemination of my own work (and thinking carefully about the three forms/domains of image making that my final project will involve, and how these will be presented and circulated, and find an audience). The advice on the use of social media (to communicate the distinctiveness of your work) and personal website (to concentrate on personal projects) was really helpful.

In terms of developing my own work, this has focused mostly on making contacts and relationships, and arranging settings for image making later in the year. Creating a portfolio for this module is going to be challenging as the image making will be end loaded. At this point, making images will mostly be about refining technique and developing a distinctive style. I am also having to come to terms with travelling and being away from the places in London where I will be doing photographic work, and the impact this has on advancing my project and producing work for assessment in this module.