9 Noteworthy Narrative Films Featuring Photography

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I love films almost as much as I love photography. Put both of them together and it can make for a great time at the movies. Admittedly, a lot of films that feature photography get a lot wrong. They make mistakes that completely take me out of the movie and leaves me fidgeting in my seat. However, there other movies which are just a pleasure to watch even if they get a few things wrong, I happily go along with the ride.

Here are some feature films that I’ve always had a fondness for. Each features photography in some way. Sometimes, photography is a prominent element in the narrative, while in others it’s just secondary. But regardless of that, they are films that I have and won’t hesitate to watch again and again.

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City of God (2002) – Dir. Katia Lund

This is just a visually stunning film set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It tells the story of two young friends whose lives take on markedly different paths with one becoming a photographer and the other, a drug dealer. It boasts several non-actors who actually grew up in the kinds of slums in which the film is set. It creates an amazing glimpse into a brutal and dynamic world. It can be a hard film to watch at times, but at the end it feels as if you have had a unique and sincere experience.

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Rear Window (1954) – Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Easily one the grand master’s best films, Rear Window tells the story of a photographer (Jimmy Stewart) who finds himself confined to his apartment after breaking his leg. Through his apartment window, he believes he has witnessed a murder committed by a neighbor (Raymond Burr) and has to convince and solicite the help of his beautiful girlfriend (Grace Kelly). The film is amazing for the way it takes a very limited location and leverages it into an amazing set piece. The film still holds up after decades. It’s a film that made me wish that being a photographer really held out the possibility of gaining the affection of a woman as beautiful as Kelly.

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The Killing Fields (1984) – Dir. Roland Joffe

One of the greatest films about friendship, the Killing Fields tells the real-life story of Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), who were covering the conflict in Cambodia, which led to the brutal “Year Zero” cleansing campaign. After Schanberg fails to get his friend safely out the country, Pran endures the brutality of the re-education camps, while his friend desperately searches for his friend. Despite the setting, the film leaves you hopeful about the human spirit. The final scene always leaves me in tears.

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The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) – Dir. Peter Weir

Another film set during war, the film is set in Indonesia during the reign of President Sukarno. It tells the love story between a reporter played by Mel Gibson and a diplomat (Sigourney Weaver). But the most engaging relationship is the friendship that Gibson’s reporter has with a photographer, a half-Chinese dwarf played brilliantly by Linda Hunt. Despite the character’s small size, Hunt portrays this photographer as a tenacious, unrelenting force whose sincere pursuit of the story is amazing to watch. This performance won her the Oscar and it was well deserved.

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Under Fire (1983) – Dir. Roger Spottiswoode

I remember hearing that Nick Nolte’s portrayal of photojournalist, Russell Price was as accurate a portrayal of a conflict photographer as had been in film up to that point. The films tells the story of three photojournalists documenting the last days of the Somozoa regime in Nicaragua in 1979. Featuring performances by Gene Hackman and Ed Harris, the film accurately reflects the unpredictable nature of photographing in the midst of a civil war. Some of the choices made by the character might not pass muster with a real photojournalist but help to serve a story that still holds up.

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One Hour Photo (2002) – Dir. Mark Romanek

Harkening back to the days when you had to take your film to a lab to get it processed (not that long ago when you think about it), the film is easily the most frightening film about photography that you will ever see. Robin Williams plays Seymour Parrish an employee at a photo lab who becomes frighteningly obsessed with a family that uses the lab’s services. Williams’s performance is the heart of this movie, but it’s the director’s ability to create a growing sense of dread and fear that makes this film a standout. The final shot of the film is both apt and brilliant.

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Salvador (1986) – Dir. Oliver Stone

Here is another film set during the a war in a Central American country. This time it is in El Salvador, where photographer Richard Boyle (James Woods) is trying to rebuild his waning career. Incorporating real elements including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. the film is based on a true story by journalist, Rick Boyle. Though I have a love-hate relationship with the performances of Woods, this is one of the films where I feel that his intense hyperness and emotionality seems appropriate for a character facing such tragedy.

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Pecker (1998) – Dir. John Waters

Not all films involving photography have to be dark and intense. John Waters’ film tells the story of an aspiring young photographer, Pecker (Edward Furlong) who suddenly experiences overnight success for his images documenting the interesting characters in his Baltimore neighborhood. The characters are strange and borderline distasteful, but they are all presented with the love and affection that Waters always has for his characters. It’s a biting critique of the art world, which is fun to watch.

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Funny Face (1957) – Dir. Stanley Donen

Inspired by the young career of photographer, Richard Avedon, Funny Face features Fred Astaire as a fashion photographer. During an unplanned shoot in a bookstore, he discovers a young woman who is to becomes his muse. The photographs are actually set up by Avedon who served as a consultant on the film, which explains the beauty of many of the compositions. It may not be the best film that either Astaire or Hepburn did, but it’s still a lovely and engaging film. How can you not fall in love with Audrey Hepburn?

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