Conflict Within the Frame
Harken back, if you will, to grade 12 English Literature class. Remember the teacher droning on and on about Man versus Man, Man versus Nature, and Man versus Himself while you dreamed about the cute foreign exchange student who would later go on to break your heart and date your best friend, leaving you to wander aimlessly into the wilderness and struggle for your survival while battling your inner demons? You do? Well, that’s a great story and it contains some great conflict. In fact, it contains man-against-man, man-against-nature, and man-against-himself types of conflict. You had no idea at the time that you would become a classic cautionary tale, did you?
Going back to the droning Lit teacher, conflict is the heart of all story. Without it, there is no story. For a photograph to contain or imply a sense of story, it must have conflict.
But how do we bring conflict to play in a frame? Obviously, we can photograph moments of actual open conflict—guns and fists and angry gestures. But what about stories that are not about open conflict? What about stories that are about something else but still need conflict to move it forward?
Conflict in a still photograph is most often shown in contrasts. Not just the visual contrast of dark tones to lighter ones, but the more conceptual contrasts of big/small, mechanical/natural, smooth/textured. Any pair of juxtaposed or implied opposites creates what I call “conceptual contrasts” that imply conflict.
Canon 5D, 85mm, 1/15 @ f/1.2, ISO 640
Chemray Gompa, Ladakh, India. The contrasts in this image are what drive it forward and give it a sense of story. The contrast between the old and the new, the past and the present, anchors this image conceptually, even as the contrast between bright and faded, colorful and muted, anchors it visually. The crack provides the clue to the story.
Canon 5D, 85mm, 1/100 @ f/8, ISO 400
Delhi, India. A man sits reading the Koran at Nizamuddin shrine in Delhi. The contrast between the Koran and the cell phones—the ancient and the modern, communication with God and communication with man—provides the conceptual contrasts in this image.
This concept applies to all kinds of images. Even a sunset shot contains elements of conceptual contrast—sky versus earth, sun versus water, light versus dark. Strongly opposed or contrasting elements create a compelling sense of conflict, which is the heartbeat of the story.