Photography in graphic memoir

Lay Summary 

Graphic novels tell stories by combining not only words and images, but also different types of images, such as cartoons, maps, charts, photographs, and paintings. However, despite the emphasis on visual storytelling among comics scholars, no one has systematically examined the impressive range of images used by comics artists to tell their stories, and the use of photography in comics has largely been ignored. Thus, I will examine what happens to a story's coherency — its mood, tone, and authority — when the drawn, cartoon visual narrative is interrupted with a different or competing type of image: the photograph.


Photography is particularly prevalent in graphic memoir, a comics subgenre that sets out to truthfully represent a real self. I will explore if this strategy, adopted by so many graphic memoirists, is a specific stylistic choice that troubles understandings of both photographic and cartoon images, and of self-representation. Using a novel, inclusive, and visual trans-modal approach, I ask if and how the coming together of two types of images in autobiographical comics forces readers to consider anew the storytelling capacities and functions of each type of image, and their efficacy in communicating an accurate sense of self.


Several interrelated assumptions guide my research:


1) The visual track of a comic book does not simply show, but also tells;


2) A comics author makes strategic choices about what to show and how to show, thus ensuring that cultural history — the assumptions and beliefs of readers — factors into the reading and the making of the visual narrative; and


3) The visual composition of the comics page and the work as a whole has a primarily narrative function, as it impacts tone and directs focus and meaning.


Insofar as I focus on the mixing of photography and cartooning as a visual storytelling device, my analysis is formal. I will examine different uses of photography in several graphic memoirs, from drawn photographs to actual photographs, cartoon altered photographs to photo-comics. However, I will also consider socio-historically established ideas about autobiographical writing and each type of image to identify their storytelling elements and how image commingling troubles preconceived notions of representing self while conveying information about self. This will address presumed truths about each type of image, and will be complemented by comparing their historical production and reception.


To continue promoting the study of photography in comics, and to engage interest and increase awareness of this area of study among scholars, practitioners, and the public, I will work closely with graduate students to:


1) Design a website where comics artists and scholars address this new visual storytelling practice;


2) Organize a 2-day workshop with papers, roundtable discussions, and a public talk;


3) Edit a volume of essays for Image and Narrative, a peer-reviewed open-access journal; and


4) Organize a public talk at The Rooms, NL's provincial museum, and art exhibits at the university library and The Rooms;


5) Communicate results at conferences and in journals.


Photography and cartooning are often theorized as opposites in relation to questions that are crucial to autobiographical writing: truth, fidelity to the real, and authority. Studying the use of photography in comics challenges us to rethink our presuppositions about the nature of cartoons and photography, knowledge and truth, and the role of literature in their communication. This work will also pave the way for future studies that explore how different life-writing genres, and the narrative strategies they adopt, can challenge, reposition, and perhaps overthrow long-standing concepts that inform autobiography studies.


Adapted from

Life Writing
Visual Arts
Start date 
1 Jan 2017
End date 
31 Dec 2019