I behaved badly once, scoffing–quite possibly sniffing–at a photographer acquaintance who asked if he could get a job at a newspaper my wife published.
This man was accomplished as photography goes. He could produce achingly gorgeous platinum prints from an 8×10 view camera. He could work his way around a photo studio using a giant softbox and some expensive lighting gear squeezed into his apartment. He knew how to direct fashion models in an art photo shoot.
Some of that might qualify him for the photography aspect of the job. But I asked him, “Do you know how to write a caption?” He mustered a sheepish “no.”
I impressed upon that not knowing how to write a caption is a deal-breaker.
An Associated Press photo from 1990 shows how captions used to be typed when transmitted over the “wire” for use around the world. No, the Carlos Moreno in this photo is not your instructor. Photo by George Gongora/Corpus Christi Caller-Times
One of the nuances about photojournalism is that it’s not all about taking pictures. The job is a two-part fusion of skills: photography and journalism. Plying those two into purposeful, meaningful work that yields depth and understanding separates an ordinary photojournalist from an extraordinary one.
When I took over the photo editing job at a newspaper in south Texas many years ago, the photographers there didn’t write captions. They were accustomed to making photos while out on assignment; returning to the newspaper to churn out a print; and then tossing the picture to a writer or an editor who would write the captions for them.
That’s not how I learned the business. And that’s not how it should ever be performed (with an occasional exception).
Note how this caption is typed along the side of the image instead of beneath the photo–where captions historically reside.
We could write a typical caption for this image that reads: “Residents of Lakewood Lakes watch fireworks from the shore on the Fourth of July in 2015.”
That tells the story of the image, but it doesn’t provide depth. Much more could be said about the event or even about fireworks and tradition. Photo by Carlos Moreno
Photojournalists perform a multitude of functions. Writing captions that detail the who, what, when, where, why and sometimes how remains an integral part of the job. But writing captions that provide more than a superficial expression of the image’s content makes the synergy between words and pictures something richer.
“The best photo captions will provide a lot more information than what you can just see,” says National Geographic magazine’s Managing Editor David Brindley. “They give you that context of the story behind the photo.”
While blogging does not carry the weight of a photo essay in National Geographic, the same consideration must weigh on the writer posting up a few hundred words on WordPress.
Consider the needs of the audience. Consider if an image standing alone conveys enough visual impact that a caption might be unnecessary. Does an image create a distraction if it does NOT have a caption? Does a photo beg for worded information beyond the basic 5W’s? Does the caption only need to serve as a contextual reference to support and amplify a wider message than what’s contained in the image?
Photo captions remain a vital element in the marriage of pictures and words. The job is only partially complete without the caption attached to an image. And it’s not only photojournalism for newspapers where this is a concern. Dave Junker, a public relations lecturer at the University of Texas writes that “images are not magic wands. They need words to help them work their magic, like star performers need a stage.”
The stage, whether it’s a home town paper or the pages of National Geographic, deserves illumination and brilliance. In the media environment, leaving photos to stand on their own encourages confusion; perhaps even misunderstanding. That’s poor stage craft.