Captions: Why are they important?
“Does this image tell a story?”
This is a question that photographers ask themselves every day, in a variety of contexts. We ask this question when composing a photograph, when trying to sequence a project and when viewing the work of others. At every step of the process this question is worth asking, because photographs are often at their core, stories.
There are plenty of reasons that people enjoy photography and the act of producing photos and I’m not proposing that an image with no immediate story is a failed product – but speaking from a personal note, all my favourite photographs have an identifiable narrative.
So how does an image tell a story? Is it due to the composition, the subject, the light or the focus? Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes, the strongest part of an image isn’t what it contains, but the context it was taken in and the intent that is expressed. The story behind the image can be just as powerful as the image itself.
This image by Cathy Ronalds won the Documentary Category for APA 2019, and is a perfect example of a caption and image bolstering the strength of one another. Cathy’s caption reads as follows;
“Travel is packed with action and wonder. But it is the in between moments that equally fascinate me: the waiting in strange places, those long pauses we don’t normally experience in day to day life, where our senses are heightened by cultural differences. We had stayed in a remote part of Albania, I had just woken our daughter early for the ferry. She recalibrated her senses in this strange place.” – Cathy Ronalds
The caption provides us with the context and intentions behind the photograph. Upon first look, this image could take place anywhere and be any time of day. The understanding of where and why Cathy chose to create this image fills in the gaps and widens the stories meaning. It takes us inside the photographer and subjects world.
All imagery has a story, and most stories can be expanded upon. The narrative of an image may seem obvious to the photographer – after all they created the photograph – but for those of us viewing it amongst thousands of other images, the story may not be so obvious. When entering a photography competition, even if a photographer has specifically chosen to not include a caption to accompany their image, that is still worth clarifying for the judges. It’s helps us to understand your frame of mind, how you personally view this work and very importantly your intent.
“In a time when the world is on the verge of acknowledging an environmental crisis from global warming, caused at least in part by fossil fuel extraction and burning, theAustralian government is supporting the opening of some of the world biggest coal mines to extract cheap low grade coal, and send 500 ships a year through channels in the Great Barrier Reef to burn for electricity on the other side of the world in India. The reef is dying from rising sea temperatures caused by global warming and the coal mine featured here, just inland from the Reef, and its coal will join that procession of resources to India. This invites reflection on one most topical and pressing questions of our time – Can we find a sustainable balance between our energy resource needs and the wellbeing of the worlds natural ecosystems?” – Paul Hoelen
One of my favourite captions to come out of 2019’s Aerial Category was this one by Paul Hoelen. The caption, which is especially important when accompanying more abstract work, goes to great lengths to explain the details behind the image to us. It effectively lays out pretext, location, interpretation and intent.
This level of detail in a caption is not what we expect from every entry. This is a documentary image as much as it is an Aerial, and thus benefits greatly by the deep explanation and context, but a simple outline of why you chose to create an image will never go astray.
So to all of you getting excited to submit your work into the 2020 Australian Photography Awards or Stories, consider your captions before hitting that enter button. You may even find by reflecting on the work and writing about it, that even you as the creator seeing your work in a new, expansive light.