As some of you know, I am taking a short online course “Seeing Through Photographs“, organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. As part of the program, we were asked to pick one of the modules, and discuss our views on it. I chose the module which explored how photographs have been used to construct narratives that shape our understanding, often in a series of images.
Whilst accepting that a series can truly extend understanding, I argue that a single image can also have powerful narrative qualities.
I was particularly struck by the work of Harrell Fletcher, on the Vietnam War (2005). It is a strong narrative, using ‘found’ images in the War Remnants Museum – re-photographs of US and International sources, but interpreted from the Vietnamese side. The use of text adds depth, and draws in the viewer. The series proved to be an education for Fletcher, and subsequently for visitors to his exhibitions.
The images have layers of complexity, from the original photographer’s ‘vision’ to the Vietnamese interpretation, to Fletcher’s own vision of how to present the series. It is marvellously thought provoking, and, as Fletcher notes, has clear connections to today’s events in the Middle East.
Fletcher’s work led me to reflect on other photographers. I discussed Don McCullin‘s work, amongst others, and as we hear today that he has been given a knighthood for services to photography, it seems appropriate to discuss his work.
Don McCullin’s work in Biafra created a series of great power. The narrative impacted public opinion, whilst also standing as work of a fine artist. It straddled genres. McCullin was on assignment for The Sunday Times Magazine, photographing starving, war orphaned children.
Yet images such as ‘Starving Twenty Four Year Old Mother with Child’ stand alone, as a moving portrait of suffering. It is a harrowing image of a starving mother attempting to breastfeed her child with shriveled breasts.
McCullin’s work also illustrates that a successful portrait can be caught in a single image, with enough context to build understanding of what is happening to those photographed.
His ‘Shell Shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue, 1968’ is another such example, part of a series on the Vietnam War.
The work of Alex Webb also transcends boundaries – street, narrative, documentary, and Fine Art.
His images invariably stand alone, though the impact of a series, especially as shown in his books, is profound. Here is ‘Haiti Prison‘.
On the other hand, Nick Hedges’ work for Shelter (1969-72) on the slums of Glasgow is powerful because of its completeness.
Each is a strong image, but the totality is overwhelming in its sobering impression of despair.
(Only in 2015 did Hedges agree to lift a 40-year restriction on the use of the photographs in Scotland, as many feature young children and their families)
The single image ‘Napalm Girl (Kim Phúc)’, by Nick Ut (1972), instantly showed the horror of war, and the impact on civilians of how the war was being waged. The image is both a powerful social document, and a journalistic ‘one-off’ that helped sway opinions.
The NYT initially baulked at publishing it, because of the naked child, but relented in the public interest. The image won the Pulitzer Prize (1973). Richard Nixon even apparently ‘wondered if the image was fixed’, as he knew its impact on the public.
There were other images taken that day, by Alan Downes and Le Phúc Dinh. Their collective work gives a broader picture of the incident, enhanced how it happened, and the other people involved. Yet Ut’s is the defining image.
In every case, the choices made throughout the photographic process impact the final result. Composition, technical settings, black and white or colour, processing, framing, selection and printing. At every step, the meaning of an image and how the viewer will perceive it is altered. Then, in a gallery, the way an image is ‘read’ is influenced by the curator’s choices and positioning of the photographic series. The same is true in books.
The module was thought provoking and helpful in my pursuit of what I call “unfinished stories” – images that have a sense of place or personality, but which also raise questions about who, what, where, when. It encouraged me to strive to capture a single, narrative image, whilst noting that a series might serve projects even better.
Note: The featured image is McCullin’s Nikon F, which took a bullet from an AK 47 in Cambodia in 1968, and saved his life. The Nikon didn’t survive.