The Underrated Art of the Photo Series

Over the last few months I have photographed a fantastically diverse range of documentary images, working on my ability to tell a story in a single frame. After a lot of trial, error, and feedback I’ve found that there is a shortcoming in the capacity for a single image to be a truly accurate or reliable form of storytelling.

A solitary image can contain a moment, perhaps the most important moment ever photographed, and yet still not contain much of a story – stories require context, either in the caption from the perspective of the photographer, from other people at the scene in interviews, or from other relevant images which fill in more of a sequence of events.

I think when an image is displayed alone and out of context there is a lot of potential for an audience to project quite a lot of their own opinions onto what is actually being shown.

I often receive comments along the lines of “her face tells such a story!” which, especially for my Street Photography, rings very false, and is sometimes sort of worrying. Any yawn, or blink, or gesture can be taken out of context and made to seem something else – a harmless motion can be made to seem violent, or a facial twitch made to seem characterful.

This is a recent photograph made during the April Extinction Rebellion protests. Shown out of context it can be found quite funny; the Officer seems to be looking for someone, oblivious to the fact that they’re on top of the caravan. However this is clearly not the case – of course they knew there was someone there, and the entire scene is in fact surrounded by a police cordon as they attempt to clear it off the road.

It only takes a second to think about the image to know how obvious this is – but realistically how many people really stop and think about a photograph these days, especially in the format my work is currently being presented in? On a blog, or instagram, it’s a matter of a quick like or comment and then scroll to the next piece of content, spending very little time really absorbing and processing something in the way they might spend time on in a photography book, or gallery.

As a Street Photograph it is an amusing image, but it fails as a documentary piece until you see it in the context of that day’s events.I’ve started to work using the narrative of cinema when I want to tell a story, where a set of three images incorporating “wide” (establishing, landscape), “mid” (usually action), and “close” (possibly portrait, detail) help to guide the viewer through the story. Once I think I have something potentially iconic or significant I try to remember to make another two to contextualise it – whichever the iconic one fits into I’ll try and make the other two.

Sometimes these three images don’t really need to be related that heavily. For example a series of my images from protests was actually featured by an online publication, and I used it as an opportunity to put peaceful and violent images next to each other, which balance and has its own story and message when viewed in sequence. The story there is not about any one image individually, but rather a larger idea relating to the subject matter.

This photograph, which features in that series, actually had quite a few people expressing sympathy for the subject – until they were informed that he was EDL. Again, without context people are not able to form accurate opinions – something that in this case a simple caption would fix.

Context can also be offered in the form of a contact strip/sheet, even if none of the images on it are “keepers”. They offer insight into the events pre/proceeding that frame, and can often provide insight into the way the photographer works a situation.

I think that if documentary work is being presented as documentary work then it should consist of at least three images at some stage. One of the things I’ve found this blog is good for is if someone finds something interesting on my Instagram I can refer them to the entry I have here (if it exists) and they can learn further. If presenting in a book or gallery then smaller pieces to accompany large prints/full page spreads would go a long way to helping an audience form a more accurate idea of the story being told.

When it comes to curating a body of work the role of accompanying detail and context shots becomes quite apparent. I could put one hundred of my best images next to one another but they would likely have no theme, or flow, and wouldn’t make for the best gallery or book experience. A smaller selection of “great” images linked by images that might not have as much storytelling merit individually, but support that image, will make that much difference when viewed by an audience who don’t have access to all of the information the photographer does.

The photographer themselves are privy to essentially all of the context to their images – the before, during, and after of each exposure. Without making an effort to produce images that contextualise their frames, or publishing images that weren’t made deliberately for that purpose but still fulfil the role, I think they do the journalistic angle a disservice. One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about this topic is because I’d like to start working on a photography book, which would involve at least 80 images. 80 is a sort of arbitrary number, but it’s close to the number of images (83) features in the iconic “The Americans” by Robert Frank. These 83 frames were culled down from a total of 767 rolls of film which he shot over the course of a year.

If I’m able to make a coherent book, with a solid theme and featuring 80 solid images, along with maybe twenty or so contextual images as the glue to hold the series together then I’ll be very happy. I’ll be able to keep this in mind while out and about generating content – I will keep an eye out not only for fantastic scenes and moments, but also for the smaller details, and I’ll allow myself to spend some time on these were I may have walked past them before on the search for better and more energetic frames.

9 thoughts on “The Underrated Art of the Photo Series

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  1. Couldn’t agree more, a single image can be pretty, shocking, beautiful, ugly… But it takes more to tell a story. I don’t like captions but try to add one anyway. Lately I also like to add video footage to still images. In the past I used to select only one strong image, a showstopper, to share. Recently, I took some time to go through my archive and I realised that I had previously discarded so many images because I just couldn’t see them against a larger backdrop. Good luck with your project, and thank you for sharing your thoughts about this topic, so interesting!

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  2. That’s all so well put Simon. I do think the word ‘storytelling’ is overused in street, vs documentary where images more often work together as you describe. Personally I still think of my street photos as single images, so I guess any perceived story (if any) is simply creating intrigue for the viewer’s imagination, instead of illustrating a specific narrative as with documentary!

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  3. Thanks Chris! The Street/Journalism line is an odd one these days, especially with the amount of civilian journalists working! Projection is difficult to manage, but can often be directed.

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  4. Hi Simon! I’m new to wordpress and I have shot film using a point and shoot only. I found your blog about the honesty of film photography and got hooked. The article made me rethink and the comments made me debate with myself. I love this article so much because I feel the same way about photo series and storytelling in general. I only shoot with my Xperia since I can’t afford a film yet but I’m saving up now. You have inspired me to really do film this time! Thank you.

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  5. Thank you so much! Mobile photography is no less worthy than film or a digital camera, it’s how you apply it! For a starter film camera I recommend a Nikon FM, which can be found quite cheaply!
    Happy shooting! 🙂

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  6. I look forward to hearing more about you putting a book together – curating images and sequencing – gnarly issues that I grapple with myself when working on my projects.

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  7. Thank you, although that will be a while in the making! Curation is never easy, whether it’s for a book or a gallery or even just for display online. I think reviewing physical copies is a good way to put things into perspective, even if they’re just 6×4 print outs – having that tangibility is a great way to practically see what works in sequence.

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