Category Archives: 21. Introduction to Part Five

21.Narrative and Illustration introduction

Narrative and Illustration

It has taken me quite a bit of time to get started on Part Five of the course due to several factors including moving house, family commitments and just life in general. However, here I go!

Prior to beginning the posts on the Narrative and Illustration exercises it thought it would be useful to define the terms narrative and illustration. This will help me to be clear of their differences and similarities as I carry out the exercises ahead.

The course notes begin by discussing subject and treatment in photography.

Content and Form

Simply put, photography where the subject or content is of paramount importance could be described as putting the subject first. An example of this could be a photograph of a news event. The other end of the scale is where the subject is of little importance but the composition, lighting, colour and other image-making skills are all important, such as an abstract photograph. This is commonly termed to be the treatment.

Both of these examples sit at opposite ends of the spectrum, and are elements of a long-standing issue in art, the struggle between content and form. However, opinions on whether a specific photograph is more weighted towards content or form will vary hugely between individuals, depending on what each person regards to be an important subject. This is an element of how context relates to a photograph.


Short (2011, p28) explains the importance of context as informing the viewers’ interpretation of a photograph. She continues by noting that the same photograph can be used in different contexts and take on different meanings in relation to that context.

She defines context as:

  • the function of the photograph
  • the placing of the photograph
  • the relationship between the photograph and other photographs in the series or body or work
  • use of text and more external factors, such as topicality
  • geographical placing of the photograph
  • the cultural understandings and experiences the audience bring to the photograph.

The above factors are important considerations in narrative and illustration as this involves beginning with the subject, considering what is important or interesting about it, and using this to suggest the treatment.


Simply put, in photography, a narrative is the way of telling a story through a set of pictures. It could be considered to be a picture essay containing 3+ photographs. The course notes advise that the narrative treatment is best applied to subjects that are made up of several parts of events. Short (2011, p96) elaborates on this by stating that visual narrative techniques are used to depict or create frames of reference and context. In photography, she describes these techniques as providing meaning, coherence and, where appropriate, a sense of rhythm to an image or sequence of images.


The course notes describe illustration as largely a matter of telling a story in a single image. It stresses that a single, strong image can have a lot of impact and often be more memorable than a series. Short (2011, p109) explains that a story drawn from a single image is created by all the components of the photograph and they appear at the moment of photographing. Therefore, it would seem that questions about composition, content, the photographer must carefully consider all elements of design, colour and lighting.


On a basic level, narrative and illustration in photography is the telling of a story. However, it is not just a matter of snapping photographs of an event in a sequential form. The exercises and assignment will require me to utilise the technical skills I have gained so far over the course to help narrate or illustrate through photography. However, initial research has also indicated that the arrangement and positioning of the resulting photographs is also an important factor in how they, and the story, are received by viewers, making these additional points for me to consider.

Short, M. (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA