Photography – The Unreliable Narrator.

The idea of the unreliable narrator, or as Wayne C. Booth also describe as being a ‘fallible’ narrator (1975: 157) is usually applied to fiction writing, however it is a fairly apt description of photography when we consider its definitions. Novelist Sarah Pinborough puts it best “story tellers that cannot be trusted” noting:

“we’re all unreliable narrators of our lives who usually have absolute trust in our self-told stories. Any truth is, after all, just a matter of perspective”


Truth in photography has been discussed many times and clearly shown to have a slippery grasp on the concept. Yet, we still tend to believe the image as presented, even when the photograph is a step removed from the reality when it was taken. John Berger reminds us: “The photograph is about this actuality” (2013: 8) and it is important to place further emphasis on the statement ‘about this actuality’ as in the image is not the actuality but a description of it and never a full one. When thinking about the ways in which literary critique can also apply to photography, It is also worth considering the links between the novel and the image with a prime example being Jack Kerouac’s introduction to Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ (2014) in which this bastion of the documentary photography genre also sets up the idea that what you are looking at is absolutely a blend of fiction and non-fiction, or as Vanessa Winship describes as “chronicle and fiction” (2015) just as Kerouac does in constructing his partially autobiographical ‘On the Road’ (2000).

Photography is assumed to be more reliable than reading a novel, as you are aware of the book’s construction. Even non-fiction, or autobiographical works of literature are assumed as being embellished, fictionalised, and as Pinborough stated, all about perspective. Booth discusses a distance between the author and the reader of the text and this is created in the use of the narrator within it, whether reliable or not:

“the distance can be on any axis of value. Some successful authors keep most of their characters far ‘away’ in every respect”

(1975: 158)

This distance of the literary narrator in our case is the camera and photography. However, It is much harder for authors of photographs to distance themselves from their narrator to the reader, owing to the direct link of the author clicking the shutter in the same space and time as the thing photographed. It is much harder to separate these things as a reader of the image as the actuality of the object is always present.

This is still a flawed translation of the object. The camera places its qualities on the result – limits of technology, time and light; and human qualities of our own orientation mean that the object photographed can never be resolved in its total existent self. We do our best to interpret the object, and maybe photography is more reliable than other methods but it is still a means of subjective construction telling only one side of the narrative – this limits create an unreliable means of narrating. As Booth also points out: “the author cannot choose to avoid rhetoric; he can only choose the kind of rhetoric he will employ” (p. 149).

Figure 1: Bob Rogers (1956) Robert and Boat.

The reliability of photographs is believed to the point that when a deception occurs, the shock resonates. Within the novel, this is a useful plot device to create intrigue within a narrative. Within photography it is an immutable quality remaining undetected for the most part and once the discovery has been made, the message of the work is irrevocably changed for the reader (p. 158). A good example of this can be seen within the images of photographer Bob Rodger’s father (Fig: 1) standing next to the boat, which is not his. A simple but deceptive image designed to project a certain class and social status to the viewer of the image unaware that he has not the means, yet for Roger’s Father:

“He understood, too, that the photographic image created its own reality: in the world of that image, he was a boat owner … And the picture, created by the ‘objective’ lens, certified the reality of this claim”

(Heiferman, 2012: 239)
Manually intervened
Figure 2: Unknown (1930s) A portrait of Djakhan Abidova, a woman in the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, deliberately damaged as part of an effort to erase her in the nineteen-thirties

After suggesting that photography is an unreliable narrator using Booth’s literary analysis, what about clues left by other unreliable narrators, supposedly to further weaken the case for actuality within the image but instead creates intrigue for the story that they instead want to tell. Photography is an unreliable narrating tool used by us as unreliable narrators of our own stories. What I find really interesting about my own family archive is the way that the photograph has been disrupted to hide one truth but create another from what may have been another innocuous image within the album. Why not remove the whole image from the archive completely? As with images doctored during the time of Stalin (Fig: 2), it feels like a form of control, or as Ingrid Pollard suggests, a state sponsored voice (2021). This idea has come up in my research before: the idea of a state instantly creates thoughts of political powers creating narrative to suit agendas and there are similarities to the way that the family album is collated and images collected together. It is mentioned in ‘Shape of Evidence’ (Berrebi, 2014) of Michel Focault’s discussion on ‘state assembled archives’ (2014, p. 42). A version of the state could be argued to be the family in my own case, and the archive is no less assembled. As Berrebi points out: “there are no such thing as ‘found objects,’ but only objects that are ‘set aside’, selected and re-contextualised” (p. 41), which highlights that everything within the archive is not there by accident – including those images that has been manually intervened. This raises the question of who the album is in fact for? Is it to be front facing for public consumption? Surely, awkward questions would then be raised as to why the image is there. Or, more likely, is the album for private reflection, so that the image can be viewed as a reminder why the expunged are no longer part of the photographic print, linking back to Barthes idea that we wish to hold on to those we expel from our communities as reminders of what we wish not to be (2012, p. 81).


Barthes, R., 2012. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of some Everyday Spaces. Translation ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Berger, J., 2013. Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin Classics.

Berrebi, S., 2014. The Shape of Evidence: Contemporary Art and the Document. Amsterdam: Valiz.

Booth, W. C., 1975. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 11 ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Frank, R., 2014. The Americans. Göttingen: Steidl.

Heiferman, M., 2012. Photography Changes. 1st ed. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Kerouac, J., 2000. On the Road. New Edition ed. London: Penguin Classics.

Pinborough, S., 2017. Top 10 unreliable narrators. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 17 February 2021].

Pollard, I., 2021. Four Corners talk: Out of the Archive, London: Four Corners.

Winship, V., 2015. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers – 082 – Vanessa Winship: “And Time Folds” Special [Interview] (11 September 2015).

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