David Campbell: Power Narrative and Responsibility

This blog post is a response to the talk given by David Campbell which we listened to in a Phonar session following the ideas introduced by Fred Ritchin and Stephen Mayes. David Campbell outlines the concept that society understands history as a set series of events, chronologically split into the structure of centuries and eras. However defining this would have been impossible at the time of events for example those involved in the French Revolution didn’t know that this would become a historic series of events; they were just invested in creating change. Based on this idea Campbell introduces the phrase, ‘the event is not what happens, the event is that which can be narrated’ which suggests that without documentation; there is no evidence to say that history happened at all. In photojournalism, events are narrated using text and photography, both of which come together to produce a ‘story’ which will inform the reader. There is great responsibility with the storyteller, this has always been apparent, however with traditional gate keepers of information under threat from the accessibility of information on the internet, this responsibility is more crucial than ever. The concept of story telling and narrative are applicable not only to photojournalism but to all forms of photography; if we want our viewers to believe in our material we need to construct it effectively and truthfully.

Campbell states that narrative is the relationship between the idea of a story and an event, issue or person that you want to record; you as the creator have to make the connection. Robert Capa’s famous quote was “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” however this has been reshaped by practitioner Todd Papageorge, to the phrase, “If your photos aren’t good enough you’re not reading enough”. This new version of the famous quote addresses the need of every photographer to understand what they are photographing; to become familiar with the context. The only knowledge we have of events are those that someone else has narrated to us and this is important to consider when we assume the role of storyteller. Context can be found in different forms, typically it is extensive research and reading however it can also be achieved by living and experiencing which all come together to inform our choices. Campbell stated “the work that sustains itself over time is the work that understands it’s own context”, this outlines the importance of context and how it can either make or break an image. The challenge of context is that it is impossible to tell a story in it’s entirety, there needs to be a stance and in order to do that the teller must make certain inclusions and exclusions and these choices will affect how the story is told. Again we come back to the idea of responsibility; in order to deliver an effective and truthful story we must examine the information and select that which can be construed in an objective manner.

After defining the content and acquiring the context the story must be constructed, this is where narrative is influential. The narration has to be constructed effectively for the concept of the context to be understood. Following the paradigm shift and the introduction of advanced technology into the world of photography and media we can define a difference between the major forms of narrative. Conventional narrative is like that of a book which follows a linear structure and the reader has no choice but to follow the chronological order whereas unconventional narrative is the breaking up of time often seen in movies with ‘flashback’ aspects and in some cases the control is passed over to the reader. There is no right or wrong however it is important to consider the different forms of narrative in relation to the story and it’s context to identify what would suit. Ideas of narrative from literature can be used in reference to photographic storytelling, Campbell explains that moments of “exposition, conflict, climax and resolution” can be identified in almost every story and the conventional starting point of Who, When, Where, Why and How is always going to be useful or applicable. In addition to the structure, part of the narrative is how it is distributed; stories proficient in context, structure and distribution go on to be narrated on a mass scale and as a result are seen as ‘iconic’.

As a photographer, in order to introduce images into the mix we must understand the relationship between the content and the context behind it. Previously in Phonar we explored the multiple sets of data in the digital image; the metadata and the visual data, in this case the visual data must directly reference the perception we want to create. An image that is supported by it’s own context will be strong and in turn can become ‘iconic’ if it is shared on a mass scale for example the image of the ‘Napalm Girl’. Some maintain that this image changed the course of social history and ended the Vietnam War however Campbell observes that this view places an unachievable demand on the image; yes it made a huge social impact however it was the action taken after viewing the image that ended the war. Nevertheless a story built on the foundations of heavily researched context, images that build on this context and a carefully constructed narrative is almost guaranteed to succeed and make a difference in the world. The key concept to take away from this interview is as Campbell stated “if the ideas of context and narrative are better understood there is the capacity for greater change”.

All ideas and quotations were taken from the talk given by David Campbell, to listen to this interview follow the link below:



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