Context and Narrative – Maria Short

Context and Narrative by Maria Short looks at how  the planned purpose of an image can alter how you take it and how your visual language needs to vary depending on the circumstance.

The photograph:

  • How you show the ‘truth’ depends on the intended purpose of the image
  • A photo can go beyond a simple recording and take on a different personal meaning
  • Need to consider the context, social commentary, photojournalism, the personal experiences of the photographer
  • What is the ’truth’ in a constructed image? Can it be ‘deeper’?
  • You need to be both engaged with the subject and detached to allow for objectivity
  • Need to read the brief carefully and plan what you are doing if there is limited time
  • For a self-directed brief it may take of in unexpected directions
  • The context within which the photo will be seen is crucial, remember the culture may be different
  • Consider how the images relate to each other
  • There may be a need to make repeated visits to a place to learn the nuances before even starting to take pictures


  • Need to be passionate about something and committed
  • What do you want to show? Why does it need saying? Why a photo?
  • Need for as full as possible understanding of your subject – leads to insight
  • What camera format will work best? How do you avoid being over intrusive?
  • Need for both humanity and vision, shows the things that are inevitably absent (smell, noise, quietness)
  • Look to create empathy – see Stuart Griffiths – Homeless Ex-Service


  • The photographer should seek an audience which will accept his vision (Brodovitch) – How?
  • Think about what the image is intended to show, how you want the viewer to feel
  • Need for truthful communication – authenticity
  • Be aware of the attitude of potential viewers, and their understanding of the subject
  • Context and how do you tell it?
  • Shape, size and ordering of images inform a series
  • The photo is a subjective impression of what the photographer sees – not someone else’s vision


  • A beginning, a middle and an end – sometimes
  • Can be linear – but does not have to be
  • Is it a typology? A photo essay? Or what
  • Is the sequence crucial – or could the images work as standalone frames?
  • Look for coherence – visual continuity with lighting and tonal range, consider the format
  • Is the story sequential – or several snippets that link together?
  • Do you have control of the order the images are seen in?
  • Do all the images need to be the same size? What about pairs, or triptychs?
  • Need to be clear about the intention for the project
  • A single image can also be a narrative – it might be taken as a ‘one-off’ or actually originally have been part of a series
  • The more the photographer is absorbed in the moment (and the more they understand the process) the more likely an image is to tell a story – the unconscious takes over
  • Kim Sweet – the average subject, need to experiment and explore the idea

Signs and Symbols:

  • Saussure – sign is a signifier (form) and the signified (concept it represents)
  • Pierce – representamen (form) + interpretant (sense made of it) + an object to which the sign reference
  • Barthes – studium + punctum
  • Signs can trigger memories, can explain an image
  • Symbol represents something, an icon resembles it
  • Indexicality – a photo is a trace (therefore notions of truth)
  • Signs and symbols included in images need to be considered – may or may not be planned
  • They will influence how a viewer reads the image
  • What you understand from your own image is crucial – if you don’t understand it how can others
  • Signs and symbols can control the pace of a narrative


  • Might be a simple informative caption, or might be an essay, or a book! Think what is needed
  • Think about context of viewing
  • Draw on literature as part of the research either using as quotes or getting ideas
  • Use as a multidimensional addition to work
  • Does the image need the text to make sense?
  • What about the use of text within the images, as part of the photo?
  • Use of handwriting (very different from print)
  • Use of a diary format


Short, M. (2018). Context and Narrative. London; New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts.

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