Narrative has always been a key element of my project. The way that the story is told influences how it is going to be read. As Barthes acutely points out when he breaks down what the narrative is: “a hierarchy of instances” (1977: 87), therefore to understand a narrative is not to merely follow the unfolding story (Effectively creating a chronological order of events with my images). It is also to recognise the construction of all of the various elements to create meaning and present the different levels towards its conclusion.
Figure 1: Phil Hill (April, 2021) Unreliable Narrator – Archive Database spread sheet showing image captions
At the start of the project, I was approaching it in a way that would focus on documenting the evidence that I was discovering. This was clearly a disparate approach as I did not really know what I had in front of me. In order to construct my story, it was important to collect everything together. This came with some of its own challenges in the sense that my catalogue of objects and images, especially from the archive, were captioned in a very descriptive way meaning that I was eroding the ambiguity of the image and the way that it might be individually read (Fig: 1).
However, once I was in the position to know much more about the story I was going to be telling, I was able to reflect on the captions and create something that was personal to the story but ambiguous enough to allow the reader to form their own connections with the work. I worked to edit the captions from the descriptive into the emotive and to be part of the story. I had been collecting quotes from my family as I had been photographing them and was planning to add these within the sequence of the work however, iterations of this edit were becoming confused and it was felt that I need to define the voice of each element, which solidified the decision to lose the descriptive caption (Fig: 2&3). From here, I felt that I could use the quotes as captions but this was still locking down the images with the text and forcing readings of it that should remain open to interpretation.
The more I began to consider ways that I could sequence the images, the more I felt it important to do the same with the quotes too. Although, I have only used a few in the final sequence it was fundamental to the understanding of my narrative that I also consider the same rules for the text. Referring to Barthes narrative analysis, he suggests that each element becomes a ‘micro-sequence’ (p. 103) which I discussed earlier (Fig: 4), forming the larger narrative and this gives me the framework to consider the text and the image are also sequences in their own right before attempting to put them together.
Within the body of the book, the only text will be the title of ‘Unreliable Narrator’ and the following quotes:
- Why do you keep a photograph that wounds so deeply?
- You have to realise that I live a rather strange life at the moment, which one day might change.
- This… is not going to trouble me anymore.
These create one of the micro-sequences, which constructs the whole narrative. Another one being the incidental object of the reproduced negative that I discussed in the book update post (Fig: 4) and also the themselves.
I also reflected on the feedback that I was receiving about the project, which suggested much of the intrigue from the project was from the way that I was talking about the images. I wanted to create an account of my journey of discovery and also add in some personal reflections so wrote a short story. However, I didn’t want the work to become solely about my written text so it has been placed at the end of the work (Fig: 5). This is so that the reader can view the work with little to contextualise it in the first instance. The idea is that a reader’s own bias and way of interpreting the world informs the way that the narrative is understood. After reading the short story, they can then return to the images and see additional connections between the images, or ‘Easter eggs’ that may not have happened on the initial reading. This then I with the understanding that the story is my interpretation of the narrative and could very well be something else entirely if another person wrote it.
As Barthes points out: “A sequence is a logical succession of nuclei bound together by a relation of solidarity” (1977: 101), which is how I have attempted to structure my sequence for this project in the smaller elements that come together.
The question of the Unreliable Narrator remains. Who is the Unreliable Narrator? This depends on the interpretation of the narrative but I consider the way that individuals might draw conclusive ideas of what they think is happening within the sequence of images creates the idea that we are all unreliable especially if after reading the short story, these conclusions might be unfounded.
I considered photography an unreliable narrator, which it still relevant. The camera itself could even be the unreliable narrator. The camera that recorded the image which was then cut, recorded that image in its complete rectangle frame. It has the knowledge of what was in the part of the frame that the audience is unable to know. If the camera could be considered as a form or narrator, merely retelling a story to an audience through visual means then we can consider the impartiality of this narration. Is it impartial? James Wood suggests that within literature omniscience is impossible as the narrative will start to bend around a character, crucially: “wants to merge with that character to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking” (2019, p. 16). How this is relevant to the camera as narrator is the way that its narration would ultimately be impacted by the person using the tool firstly, and then by the way that it records the objects/persons/’characters’ – “Omnicient narration is rarely as omniscient as it seems” (p. 15).
Photographs are constructions in composition and framing, yet can be perceived as record and objective. The cut photograph interrupts this by cropping the photograph further, albeit abruptly. This is effectively no different from the act of framing when the photograph was taken, the key difference is the space in time between the initial framing and the subsequent edit of the photograph. These two points form another one of Barthes micro-sequences: “the sequence opens when one of its terms has solidarity antecedent and closes when another of its terms has no consequent” (1977: 101), which for the reader is where the absence of the photograph causes the questions of what happened to be raised. In Barthes analysis of the narrative there are functions that serve the broader narrative. For example, in the case of the family photograph, the act of taking it serves the function of the collective family record and is something that is universally understood. It’s defacement then impacts this understanding
Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. Translation edition ed. London: Fontana.
Wood, J., 2019. How Fiction Works. Revised Edition ed. London: Vintage.