One Image Narratives as Knowing Expressions of Relativism

WOWZERS!!! There is a lot to unpack in that title.  Visual storytelling, or narrative photography, serves as an umbrella term to describe the process of creating a narrative or telling a story about an event or concept predominantly through the use of photographs.  Examples include, but are not limited to, photojournalism, documentary photography, social documentary photography, photo essays, lifestyle photography, travel photography and many other genres. While each of these areas deserve individual attention, Photo Perspectives’ mission to promote a better understanding of our world, and those who inhabit it, through the power of photography guides our interest to single image narrative photography – and one very specific instance in that.

Although never striking me as an issue for debate, W. Scott Olson wrote a piece entitled, “Single Frame Narrative Photography: An Essay,” in which he defends the position that a single image can indeed represent a narrative.  To be honest, I was quite surprised that anyone would disagree with such a position .  For example, a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph almost by definition is a single frame narrative (see 30 examples here).  Nevertheless, Mr. Olson’s article is an excellent read and concludes in the following way:

So, here is what my heart believes: narrative photography is the ability—and intent—to photograph an open question. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, speaking about writing: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” As photographers, it’s possible to capture that wanting.

Narrative photography is the intent to capture a question and invite the viewer to wonder the world of possible answers


©2009 Dan Scott
There is definitely a narrative here leaving the viewer with multiple questions: why is the man upset;is the girl in the back part of the story; if so, is she amused or upset, etc.
©2023 JM - Photo Perspectives Freeport Middle School
Sometimes the narrative is not so serious and invites fun questions like is the dog stuck outside in the snow guarding something, waiting to play fetch, etc.


OINKERs, a term coined by Photo Perspectives, are One Image Narratives as Knowing Expressions of Relativism.   Consider the photographer of the image on the right to be an introvert with social anxiety.  The photographer uses the imagery to express what joining a group activity feels like.  His outward appearance makes him appear unapproachable but otherwise gives no other indications of emotional state.  On the inside, however, he feels like he cannot stop thrashing about, screaming in fear, unable to escape the situation.

Prior to seeing the artwork, an extrovert, having always enjoyed and even sought out social interaction, possesses no practical life experience with what social anxiety feels like.  He 

©2019 Isaac Roberts

interprets the introvert’s emotionless expression as an indication of being snobby and feeling like he is better than everyone else.

Without delving into philosophy or physics, relativism just means that how people perceive and interpret life experiences vary according to their cultural, societal, and personal histories and context.   In this case, how someone experiences a social group is relative to his or her own personality traits (like being an introvert), the person’s past successes or failures in social situations, and perhaps even their cultural heritage or family history.  The introvert’s avoidance behavior is completely understandable relative to his internal state of being and his past experiences  Avoiding groups helps him function better.  Given a lifetime of fun in group activities and lack of internal emotional distress in social situations, the extrovert’s experience of class activities as no big deal is an equally valid and understandable reaction relative to his past history and personality traits. 

So, a knowing expression of relativism simply means that while the photographer intentionally and knowingly creates imagery that communicates his experience in group activities, he understands that his experience is not the same as everyone, or necessarily even anyone, else. His OINKER is not meant to make the extrovert more socially anxious.  The imagery and discussion may, however, help the extrovert understand how vastly different another human being experiences an event like a group activity in class.  Additionally, the artwork may validate other introverts experiences or allow them to disclose different but equally upsetting feelings.

To oversimplify, relativism acknowledges that two people’s experiencing of reality may be different but equally understandable and perhaps valid from each’s point of view.  Absolutism is the opposite.  Absolutism, often existing with extremism, requires a single, objective reality and denies the validity of any perspectives inconsistent with one’s own.   Capacity to expand one’s beliefs and seek out new learning outside such beliefs subsequently is stunted.

An exhibition showcasing OINKERs creates a setting for growth and mutual understanding through respectful discourse.   When an exhibition involves more sensitive issues, an OINKER allows those holding opposing viewpoints, yet even an inkling of curiosity, to explore an alternative position completely on their own, without audience or objector.   Again, the goal of an OINKER is not to change someone’s view necessarily, but simply to share a human experience through visual representation.  Exploration of the experience of another in no way requires one to abandon one’s own beliefs, nor acknowledge that one’s faith in those beliefs has been shaken.  The skill of respectful discourse, even if concluded by agreeing to disagree, begins with understanding the perspective from which the other person experiences life.  

Even if all that theory makes no sense, OINKERs can be fun to produce and view.  They are creative expressions of someone else’s perspective.  An OINKER with no explanation can be a great conversation starter.  For example, simply asking a group of interested people what they think the narrative is for the image at the start of this article might result in a range of interesting  interpretations and perhaps a greater understanding of individual group members.

Similarly, photographers could be asked to write a six word story and illustrate it with an OINKER.  For example, a photographer might post the image at the left with the six word story:

“Rain is wet wherever you live.”

What does that mean, if anything, to you?

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