Showing Not Telling – Text and Image to Form Diegesis

Kris Belden-Adams in Beyond “This-Caused-That”: The Temporal Complexities of Before-and-After Photographs (2017) re-articulates the account of how a diegesis works in a comic strip in Barthes’ Rhetoric of the Image (1964). When both text and photographs supplement each other under the same idea, a diegesis is formed (Belden-Adams, 2017). A diegesis is a kind of overall narrative consisting of the like-minded fragments that make it up.

When I first read Before-And-after Photography (2017), I started to think that text wasn’t necessary as part of the diegesis to my project. This was because of the nature of before-and-after photographs in my work. Here, before-and-after photographs make more explicit an index pointing towards an invisible event. In comparison to single photographs, there is a stronger connection between photographs to do with time passing. Therefore I was of the opinion text wouldn’t really add anything to the project.

However, when reading Chapter 10 of Before-and-after Photography (2017) again, I began to see how fragmentary the parts making up the diegesis can be. Not only is the before-and-after photographs’ veracity dependent on the photographers’ consistent approach (and by extension their assumedly altruist intentions). The text supporting the before-and-after images can itself be constructed to inform the viewer in a way that conforms as closely to what the images depict as possible or otherwise. Depending on how the text is formed by the practitioner, the diegesis will be construed differently by the viewer. For me (after reading Chapter 10 again), text is an extremely powerful device in any photograph-and-text diegesis, especially with before-and-after photographs. Here, the text can help inform (or misinform) the viewer as to what happened in-between the before-and-after photographs.

Belden-Adams (2017) uses the example of Lalage Snow’s triptychs of British soldiers in We Are the Not Dead (2010) to show how a diegesis from both text and image can be formed. The diegesis or narrative of the series is post-traumatic stress disorder. The triptychs are made in a way that sometimes dramatise the effects of war on the soldiers’ faces, while other times it does not. The factor of inconsistent lighting plays a key role in this and highlights that the approach of the photographer can sometimes help define how a piece of work is read. It is easy to read into the portraits with dramatic lighting as the soldier suffering from PTSD more in the after photographs than the less dramatic lighting of the before photographs (Belden-Adams, 2017).

© Lalage Snow (2010) 'Private Chris MacGregor, 24', from the series 'We Are the Not Dead'
© Lalage Snow (2010) ‘Private Chris MacGregor, 24’, from the series ‘We Are the Not Dead’

The other way a viewer can read into a diegesis is through the supplementary text and this has less constraints than the images. We Are the not Dead (2010) by Lalage Snow are triptychs supported by captions of the soldiers’ accounts and thoughts at the time each before, during and after photograph was taken: ‘A caption concurs with these assumptions about MacGregor’s readjustment to civilian life, and supports Snow’s’ (Belden-Adams, 2017). This shows the text supporting the image to form a diegesis. However, the text is arbitrary in this manner and a different kind of text could have been used to make up a different diegesis. In this way, forming a diegesis places a certain degree of social responsibility on the image maker to provide accurate information. In my opinion if the information plays upon these relationships, a note in supporting text should be written explaining how the accuracy of the diegesis has been subverted.

Looking at the work of Snow (2010) and the text of Belden-Adams (2017) made me realise two things. Firstly, I realised that a map-based approach to titling the images worked for me than just describing the images as I had done for WiP #1. This was because it invited the viewer in to another layer of the images; their location, without undermining the veracity of the images. Secondly, I realised I could potentially use text in a different way that I hadn’t thought of before. This method involves poetry but not just poems to do with Deptford I have tried to construct. The poems I am thinking of writing are in the first person but from the perspective of the buildings and places depicted in the images. Using personification is a powerful device and I would try to tell the places ideas of what they have seen change in time. They would be addressing me and in turn I would be addressing my viewers in my diegesis. There is an element of truth in this manner of working with poetry. Because I feel like I see the places and juxtapositions in the buildings in ways that other people might not notice, I want other people to perceive what I’ve noticed. Communicating through poetry and image like this is a viable alternative to the colder, more succinct map-based approach to titling. Poetry being used like this is an example of text being used in a relay manner with a kind of go between text and image back and forth.

An example of first person personification poetry from the perspective of the buildings is the following for the image below:

Horizontal Diptych of Composites in the Same Location

Over many months my passers-by have inscribed words into me

I’ve seen them tag words and images into my side

Though I feel little as the years have rolled by

I’ve noticed less vehicles opposite where I stand

And the new-builds behind me show nothing of the past

Standing still, I feel I am a last relic

And just a wall at that

I feel this poem works with the diptych to form a diegesis that highlights to the viewer what I feel about the place (through the ‘eyes’ of the place), without telling the viewer explicitly what they are seeing.


Barthes, R. (1999) ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: A Reader. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. pp. 33-40.

Belden-Adams, K. (2017) ‘Beyond “This-Caused-That”: The Temporal Complexities of Before-and-After Photographs’ In: Bear, J and Palmer Albers, K. (eds.) Before-and-After Photography. London: Bloomsbury Academic. At: (Accessed 07.04.2020). pp.177-192.

Snow, L. (2010) Private Chris MacGregor, 24, from the series We Are the Not Dead. [Photograph] At: (Accessed 07.04.2020).

3 thoughts on “Showing Not Telling – Text and Image to Form Diegesis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s