Unearthing the Photo Essay

1- The Narrative

Reflecting on my reading of Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s [Story] (Freeman, 2012)

Cover of the Photographer’s story (Andre Nagel, 2019)


In my Work in Progress Portfolio submission for Position and Practice, I perceived a need to take a deeper look at how I need to present my work that it is less repetitive and more engaging. I identified this work by Michel Freeman as a good base to start from before engaging in deep research about the subject. I found a small Gold Mine…


” The camera is only one tool for telling a story” for us, this is our prime interest. This means that as photographers we need to understand the fundamentals of story telling. regardless whether it is  “written or spoken words, theatre film or still images, paintings or a cave wall.”

Freeman defines narrative as ” telling an account of something: how it happened.” He describes in some detail how photography was caught up in narrative since its inception and how the technology development made this more possible through time. Photographs replaced drawings in newspapers and came with a heightened perception of truth. He adds: “it took approximately a century in the form of digital manipulation, to take photography back to the very thing is was to replace!”

Technology such as smaller format cameras, the sprocket film and high-speed lenses with low light capabilities., faster film enabled photojournalism.

But it was not only the technology that drove this: “The camera and 35 mm camera came of age in Europe at the time of social and political upheaval” Photography also synced well with the “liberalism idealism in arts of the democratic and socialist movement in that time. It is not surprising that it led to politically inspired documentary photography seeking to challenge war and social injustice. It also aligned well with modernism that “rejected tradition and the decorative, instead of embracing abstraction and, clean lines, functionality and even mass production” it slowed for a new era, capturing scenes from life and art with spontaneity and conscious realism.

He then proceeds to introduce the classic story structure from literature and screenwriting to set the scene for his exploration of the narrative in Photo-journalistic and documentary photography. He uses three photo stories or essays to illustrate how uses the narrative in photography in his practice. (Freeman, 2012)

The classic Narrative formula (Freeman, 2012, p13)


I believe Freeman has a very clear understanding of the world he saw photography development and his analysis is spot on. His books have been a tutor in my life since the 80’s when I purchased his 35mm Handbook where he while, teaching me the basics of using my camera, introduced me to the professional world.

In this book, he impressed me by how he described the natural alignment and convergence of journalism, photography and it associated technology advancements and the socio-political environment and how photography was able to serve the need of that era which continuous to date.

The narrative approach did three things for me. 1) It gave me a language to describe the purpose of photographs shot in a series. 2) It redirected me and removed the pressure of having to take key photographs all the time opening a world of opportunities. Not all of the photographs in a story need a Barthesian Punctum. A minor photograph may be used to establish the background, open the photographic essay with with a dramatic opening and buildup towards a key photograph that as an climax presentation of the punctum, and end of with a closing photograph leaving you to ponder the series as a whole 3) It allows me to assess how I can approach the way I present the photographs in an order that will reduce repetition and introduce rhythm and pace in terms of composition, angle and point of view, subject type, colour and impact and other visual factors. 4) It enables me to curate my photographs not merely on an intrinsic level but also its contextual importance in a series of photographs.

Of course, a photographic story can be told in one photograph, a small group, what Freeman calls a 3+1 combination, for magazines or a photo essay of 200-300 photographs in the form of a published book. But the ideal narrative form needs at least some a setup, a buildup, a climax and a close to be effective, whether as elements in a photograph or a series of photographs. I will be exploring this in my project work.

The contemporary practise of wedding photography is progressively adopting the story/ narrative approach in the renewed interest in high quality published albums. Some Master wedding photographers such as Roco Ancora, Joe Buisink and Yervant has adopted it within their style. The photo album or presentation is no longer a collection of photographs but a published essay on the most important day in the life of a young couple.

I did a stint in doing wedding videography which informed my photography practice in a major way. When my wife and I curated the thousands of photographs and needed to cull the photographs to about 300 for an album we intuitively broke up the day into chapters with each building up and leading into the next. Our climax was mainly the post-wedding Romantic shoot and we always looked for a “show stopper that will end of the Album. The wedding narrative is generally set but I never considered using the story approach in my personal documentary work until now.

Freeman, as a seasoned travel and documentary photographer has a large repertoire and years of practical skills and is prepared to share his skill in such a simple, pragmatic and delightful way.

Reading this book during week 3, where we discussed the tension between Art and Commercial work and how art is also commercial work, I was continuously seeing how for Freeman’s commercial work, event reportage and essays, is an art form. and it is the narrative within his work that elevates it in the traditional definition of art.

In conclusion,

I have come to realise the huge impact of how understanding narrative and its value within my photographic practice. Photojournalism and Documentary photography has always been underpinned with some form of narrative. For the photographer, the prime objective is the visual narrative, making it an integral tool in the arsenal of a photographer. And if this fails either personally add a literary narrative or collaborate with someone to add it. This has been the practice in many photographic essays I have read.


Freeman, M. (2012). The photographer’s story. Lewes: Ilex, pp.8-39.

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