The art of storytelling and the construction of narratives

Despite Benjamin’s lament in 1936 that the art of storytelling was coming to an end (1969, p 83), the documentary tradition of real life stories does not seem to have waned in popularity. Kenneth Plummer insists that stories have come to the fore in the various spheres of social science:

In anthropology, they are seen as the pathways to understanding culture. In psychology, they are the bases of identity. In history, they provide the tropes for making sense of the past. In psychoanalysis, they provide ‘narrative truths’ for analysis. In philosophy they are the bases for new forms of ‘world-making’ and the key to creating communities. Even economics has recognised its ‘storied character’.” (1995, p 18)

There is something fascinating about reading or listening to the stories other people tell, and contrary to Benjamin’s assertion that we are rarely able to come across people who can tell a tale properly, with the advent of postmodernism and the dismantling of metanarratives (Lyotard, 1984), personal experiences and accounts of events have come to the fore and are being used by a number of artists working in a variety of media, including film, photography as well as written word and recorded voice. By combining oral accounts with visuals I aim to pass on the narrators’ experiences in such a way that they become the experiences of the listener, without trying to be in any way didactic or moralising, not forcing “the psychological connection of the events” on the listener:

“It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks” (Benjamin 1969, 89).

Benjamin also remarked that we enjoy equally tales from one who has travelled widely as local stories from one who has stayed closer to home “making an honest living” (p 84). In my project I am aiming to combine the elements of experiencing a foreign culture at first hand, but at the same time the storytellers are speaking in a language that communicates to everyman – their stories are nothing out of the ordinary, but tell of the experience of living with disability in a culture that is in many ways different from Europe.

The Benjaminian notion that the story contains something useful I have tried to incorporate by asking my participants to provide a personal message – to other disabled people or to the public at large – in this way providing counsel to the audience. There is also the subliminal message that somehow we all need support, since none of us is really completely independent, and we rely on others for many of our daily requirements (Butlerian precarity). As Benjamin wrote, the storyteller is crafting something out of the raw material of human life experience “in a solid, useful and unique way” (p 108) and my task as a documentarian is to convey the stories of my subjects as well as my personal experience of being on intimate terms with them and invited to share their lived realities.

The self is a text… a project, something to be built” (Sontag in Benjamin 1979, p 14). Nevertheless, as Spivak (1988) famously observed, for a voice to be heard there has to be an audience prepared to listen.

On the other hand, as Trinh T. Minh-ha pointed out, allowing subjects to speak for themselves can also be considered an extension of oppression by dominant ideology:

Making a film on/about the “others” consists of allowing them paternalistically “to speak for themselves” and, since this proves insufficient in most cases, of completing their speech with the insertion of a commentary that will objectively describe/interpret the images according to a scientific-humanistic rationale” (1991, p 60)

However, I will refrain from inserting my own commentary on how to read the images, and the pictures themselves will reflect the speech of the subjects.

Foucault (1988, p 27) observed that the art of constructing self-narratives is one of the most ancient of Western traditions. Donna Haraway acknowledges the power of storytelling to subvert metanarratives and regain a sense of control over one’s life story. In “seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other,” individuals can retell their personal stories in “versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities” (1991, p 175). This is the kind of empowerment I am aiming for with my mini narratives. What I am trying to achieve is empathy between the subjects and the audience, and in this way the photographs themselves are not supposed to mean anything, but provide context for the narratives of the subjects. In this sense, as Larsson (2012) explains, the images are shifted to the “realm of embodied acting” about ethics as opposed to knowledge.

Documentary photography still appears to labour under the false faith that Rancière emphasised: “we are still prone to believe… that the photography of some atrocity will mobilize us against injustice” (2009, p 61); we as photographers would still like to believe that we can somehow change the world. On the other hand, if we follow the logic of Rancière’s proposal that “art has to provide us with more than a spectacle, more than something devoted to the delight of passive spectators, because it has to work for a society where everybody should be active” (ibid, p 63), we understand that a thought-provoking documentary can in fact achieve its desired effect of mobilising the ’emancipated spectators’ of society. On the other hand, he soon points out that there is no direct link between the act of looking and the position of understanding; there is “no direct road from intellectual awareness to political action” (p 73) and for pictures to evoke political reaction, the spectator must already be politically informed. I seem to recall Sontag said pretty much the same thing in On Photography:

What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness. Without a politics, photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralizing emotional blow.” (1977, p 19).

However, as Campany (2003 n.p.) is quick to remind us, images can also be barriers to understanding the past, since they “can paralyse the personal and political ability to think beyond the image” by which he means that the way in which the image is presented, as well as our prior political knowledge are brought to bear on any interpretation of the image and what it is purported to represent at any given moment in history (see Huang (1999) on Rothstein’s cow skull, and Becker (1995) for illustrations of this). As Becker points out “context gives images meaning. If the work does not provide context… viewers will provide it, or not, from their own resources” (1995, p 9). Or as Butler observed, photographs are liable to “change their meaning depending on the context in which they are shown and the purpose for which they are invoked” (2009, p 80). Sontag also noted that:

Because each photograph is only a fragment, its moral and emotional weight depends on where it is inserted. A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen: thus Smith’s Minamata photographs will seem different on a contact sheet, in a gallery, in a political demonstration, in a police file, in a photographic magazine, in a general news magazine, in a book, on a living-room wall” (1977, p 105-106).

Indeed, Campany goes on to observe how the way our memory functions is formed by the types of images we are exposed to:

The structure of memory is, in large measure, culturally determined by the means of representation at our disposal. As our image world shifts in character, so do our conditions of remembrance” (2003, n.p.)

In her seminal essay, The Totalizing Quest of Meaning, which in fact later became a chapter in When the Moon Waxes Red, Trinh T. Minh-ha made the assertion that “There is no such thing as documentary-whether the term designates a category of material, a genre, an approach, or a set of techniques” (1991, p 29). What she meant was, there is no photographic ‘reality’ that is a truthful rendition or faithful representation of facts, as she reminds us “truth is produced, induced, and extended according to the regime in power” (ibid, p 30). And she goes on to explain

Truth and meaning: the two are likely to be equated with one another. Yet, what is put forth as truth is often nothing more than a meaning. And what persists between the meaning of something and its truth is the interval, a break without which meaning would be fixed “and truth congealed” (ibid, p 30).

She also analyses the myth of realism in documentary practice:

The real world: so real that the Real becomes the one basic referent – pure, concrete, fixed, visible, all-too-visible. The result is the elaboration of a whole aesthetic of objectivity and the development of comprehensive technologies of truth capable of promoting what is right and what is wrong in the world, and by extension, what is “honest” and what is “manipulative” in documentary.” (ibid, p 33)

She speaks of long takes being regarded as more truthful, minimal or no editing to be done post production in order to retain objectivity, and wide angle shots preferred over close-ups since they include more in the frame and are thus more faithful reflections of the event filmed: “The more, the larger, the truer-as if wider framing is less a framing than tighter shots” (p 34).

the larger the amount of money involved, the more valuable the film, the more believable the truth it holds out. The longer the time spent, the more prized the experience, the more reliable the information… what exclusively circulates in mass media culture is undoubtedly, the money image… The problem of financial constraints is, however, not only a problem of money but also one of control and standardization of images and sounds,” (ibid, p 32).

Peter Davis speaks of the necessity for a photographer to understand the interplay of visual, verbal and mnemic layers in the construction of narratives, and bringing this knowledge into play when selecting and laying out images is an exercise of control over how the narrative is ultimately received, perhaps reducing possibilities of misinterpretation or re-presentation (2005, p 66).


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