Category Archives: Part 2: Narrative

Exercise: three case studies

This exercise asks us to look at three bodies of work:

  • Peter Mansell – work done for his OCA course
  • Dewald Botha – Ring Road
  • Jodie Taylor – Memories of Childhood


All three of these projects are examples of personally driven work but they become universal when we can relate to the feelings they present by visiting our own personal histories.

Which of these projects resonates most with you, and why?

How do you feel about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images you’ve created?


The strongest resonance for me comes from the work by Botha. Born in Australia and living in Switzerland near Geneva, I can understand some of the feelings of separateness and alienation that Botha must feel. I have only visited Hong Kong, never mainland China, but I can imagine that the gap between South Africa and where Botha was living at the time must have been huge. For me, it is less obvious, but that makes it all the more frustrating at times. Superficially, people here are similar to what I am used to, but every so often there is a cultural reference such as a French movie or a TV show which I completely miss. Even after living here for 11 years, I still struggle at times with fast-moving and slang-ridden French. In conclusion, while I believe that the cultural gap is less extreme than for Botha, the feelings of not “fitting in” are definitely there at times.

Authorial Control

I believe that this so-called “loss of control” is a central strength of all art and is actually exciting, rather than threatening. As artists, we are trying to elicit a response to our work. Even revulsion can be an interesting response: look at much of the media’s response to some of Damien Hurst’s work, for example. The viewer projecting their own emotions and experience is a way for them of understanding and taking ownership of the work that they are viewing. I see that provoking such a response is encouraging – I am always curious to know how others see my work.


Research Point: image and text

Examples of relay in contemporary photographic practice include Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself and Sophy Rickett’s Objects in the Field (see interview in the Appendix to this course guide) where clashes of understanding or interpretation work together to create a perhaps incomplete but nonetheless enriching dialogue between artist and viewer.

Look these pieces up online. Investigate the rationale behind the pieces and see if you can find any critical responses to them. Write down your own responses in your learning log.

  • How do these two pieces of work reflect postmodern approaches to narrative?
  • Another way to incorporate text into an image-based project is to include interviews or audio.

The New York Times has a simple but effective project online called One in 8 Million about the inhabitants of New York. It includes images of people from different walks of life and professions with audio clips overlaid to give a voice to the subject. It is a clever way of celebrating the richness and diversity of a city with such cultural and social diversity.

Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself

Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle

The rationale behind the work (see here) is that Calle received a breakup email. She didn’t know how to respond – it was if the email wasn’t for her. The email finished with the words “prenez soin de vous”.

In the Museo Marco interview (see here),  she says that she did not understand very well what her boyfriend was trying to say, so she had a friend read it and try to interpret it. That gave Calle the idea to give it to other women, and specifically those who had jobs dedicated in a certain way to interpretation. In the end, she asked 107 women to interpret the email from their own point of view.

The postmodern approach is demonstrated by Calle’s use of a variety of media to communicate the responses of the women asked to interpret the letter including video, audio and text overlaid on photos, a classical example of relay.

In reading about this work, I can’t help but think that Calle plainly doesn’t understand boundaries. For example, her earlier 1979 work Suite Vénitienne documents her tailing a man from Paris to Venice. In many countries in the world, if discovered, this would lead to arrest and prosecution for harassment. Post-modern is one thing, displaying your desperate desire for attention is quite another.

Sophy Rickett: Objects in the Field

Sophy Rickett: Observation 111, 1991/2013

Sophy Rickett: Observation 111, 1991/2013

According to the Photographer’s Gallery blog (see here), Sophy Rickett is a visual artist based in London, working with photography, video and sound installation.

While working as an Associate Artist at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, Rickett began her project initially inspired by old analogue negatives of the night sky. The negatives were from a specific kind of telescope which produced black-and-white negatives of space. Rickett also wrote a text to accompany the images which is reproduced in the blog.

The text is a series of vignettes – experiences that were obviously meaningful to Sophy, including discussions with the inventor of the telescope which produced the negatives.

According to the Photoparley interview (see here ), the project consisted of several series of photographs, a monitor based video and a text, in this way being very much a postmodern approach to narrative. In reading the interview, it becomes clear that the text connects the work with experiences and emotions in Rickett’s past and reflects her interest in optics and photography.

The photo titles serve only as anchor-text. They are factual and don’t seek to guide our understanding in any way. A serial number would have done just as well.

 Barthes (1967) describes relay as occurring when “text … and image stand in a complementary relationship … and the unity of the message is realised at a higher level”. The difference between anchor and relay is therefore quite subtle and perhaps open to interpretation. Bull (2009) gives an example of a photo by Martin Parr in which he maintains that only one word of the title serves as relay-text due to its connotation of the exact opposite of the denotation of the photo, while the rest of the title serves as anchor text.

In the case of the supporting text written by Rickett, it’s clear that it isn’t anchor-text. It doesn’t directly relate to the images at all and therefore should be seen as complementary in the sense that Barthes meant. The meaning, in effect, consists of the relay of messages between the photos and the text, not entirely in one or the other.

The New York Times: One in 8 Million

New York Times: Jim Romano: The Tabloid Photographer

New York Times: Jim Romano: The Tabloid Photographer

According to the One in 8 Million website:

“New York is a city of characters. The Green Thumb, whose community garden in a Brooklyn housing project shows children that eggs don’t come from eggplant. The Dictaphone Doctor, last of a dying breed. The Jury Clerk, who says ‘Good morning’ 200 times a day, and means it. The Teenage Mother. The Tabloid Photographer. The Iraq Veteran. The Walking Miracle. Throughout 2009, The Times introduced 54 such individuals in sound and images, ordinary people telling extraordinary stories — of passions and problems, relationships and routines, vocations and obsessions. ”

By complete chance, I happened on the story of a photographer – Jim Romano – a tabloid photographer who, since 1946 has chased news on Staten Island for The Daily News, The New York Post, and other papers.  Via a series of black & white images, he explained how he got into photography while recovering from tuberculosis.


Barthes, R. (1967) Rhetoric of the Image. At: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Bull, Stephen (2009) Photography. [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed 27 Feb 2017)

Exercise: Image and Text

Cut out some pictures from a newspaper and write your own captions.

  • How do the words you put next to the image contextualise/re-contextualise it?
  • How many meanings can you give to the same picture?
    Try the same exercise for both anchoring and relaying. Blog about it.


In Rhetoric of the Image, Barthes notes that “anchorage is the most frequent function of the linguistic message and is commonly found in press photographs and advertisements”. He goes on to say that relay is less common and good examples are cartoons and comic strips where the text (perhaps a part of a dialogue) and the image are read together. He goes on to say “while rare in the fixed image, this relay-text becomes very important in film, where dialogue functions not simply as elucidation but really does advance the action by setting out, in the sequence of messages, meanings that are not to be found in the image itself”.

Tribune de Genève: KEYSTONE

Tribune de Genève: KEYSTONE

The first example comes from the Tribune de Genève with an original caption of: “It’s the carnival period for the catholic cantons (here, that of Monthey, in Valais). Festivities will finish by the biggest carnival in Switzerland, at Basel”. In this instance, the anchor-text is particularly useful, because the photo is quite bizarre without any context at all.

Alternative captions could be:

  • The Walking Dead / Friends of Jazz Club arrives in Town
  • Zombies Invade Peaceful Village after having Attacked Brass Band
Tribune de Genève: EPA

Tribune de Genève: EPA

The second example, also from the Tribune de Genève is captioned (loosely) “The spectators were excited on arriving at Saint-Moritz, opposite the television screens”. The caption on its own doesn’t actually tell us much, other than something is happening at Saint-Moritz. In fact, St-Moritz is hosting the Ski World Championships 6th-19th of February 2017, so it’s quite a big deal.

Alternative captions:

  • Display of Swiss Nationalism in Advance of Vote to Join EU
  • Swiss Football Fans give Support to Home Team


The final example comes from Le Temps and has the caption “Mike Pence and Angela Merkel, two leaders of the western world meet at NATO”.

Alternative captions:

  • Mike Pence and Angela Merkel practice Square Dancing at Summit
  • Two Countries, Two Different Directions
Scott Adams

Scott Adams

The Dilbert series of cartoons by Scott Adams provide a great example of relay-text. Little happens in the actual drawing part, and frequently frames look identical with the only changes being in the text. We more-or-less take in both at the same time.

Another superb example of relay is William Kentridges’s More Sweetly Play the Dance (seen at Rencontres d’Arles 2016 and written about in my EYV blog – see here). The work is video projected on a series of panels, so that the characters move around the viewer. The video is supported by a soundtrack of music and speech which could be seen as relay.


Barthes, R. (1967) Rhetoric of the Image. At: [Accessed 19 February 2017]


Exercise: Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project

How does Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?

There are a number of similarities between the two works:

  • Both works clearly fall into the documentary category: they show the situations just as they are. They don’t glorify the subject, rather they just tell the story.
  • The photos show a range of emotions: some happy times as well as serious times.
  • Neither work provides much context – they both focus mainly on the subject e.g. in Smith’s series, there is only a single image showing the town of Kremmling and the surrounding mountains.
  • They both use captions to help explain what we see.

There are also a number of important differences between the two works:

  • Smith’s use of black and white vs. Campbell’s use of colour give the works a different feel with Smith’s being more classically journalistic while Cambell’s are obviously more realistic, but also more intimate.
  • While both use captions, some of Campbell’s are quite long illustrating her thoughts and feelings, while Smith’s are factual and don’t speak at all of his own feelings.
  • Campbell’s images are more personal rather than documentary – you can tell that her Dad was aware of her presence, while Smith’s work appears to be more of the detached journalistic style.
  • Campbell’s images can be seen as a linear narrative because we clearly see the degeneration that her Dad went through. The timeline is therefore important and re-arranging the images might produce a confused message. On the other hand, Smith’s images don’t have a time element overall, although there are some sub-narratives such as that of the amputation of Thomas Mitchell or of the little girl who was kicked by a horse. However, even those sub-stories could be swapped without any loss of meaning. For the most part, the images are standalone – each one telling a short story, but within the overall narrative, the exact order is not important to comprehend what is happening.
  • Finally, we can’t escape that Campbell’s work is very personal – the death of her Dad, with whom we can imagine she had a very loving relationship. Smith’s work, while plainly deeply involved, can never have the same connection.

What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

I think she means that while her Dad’s physical life has ended, in a sense he lives on within her through the memories she has and the values that he instilled in her such as “waste not, want not” which appears at the beginning of the essay. I think she sums this up perfectly right at the end of the essay:

“I consider myself fortunate that the memories of my wonderful dad’s death enrich me rather than depress me, and fortunate for feeling comfortable talking about it. It means I can do it as often as it may be relevant, thus keeping his memory ever present. I am so grateful to my dad and for giving me a way to keep moving forward with him, and to photography for making it possible.” (Campbell, 2011)


Campbell, B. (2011) The Dad Project At: [Accessed 19 February 2017)

Cosgrove, B. (2012) W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’. At: [Accessed 19 February 2017]