Pictures and Words? Yeah They Go Together

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.

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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).

lakewood-fireworks_cm

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.

 

 

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Pictures and Words? Yeah They Go Together

LIFE as We Knew It

 

As a portal to distant lands and insight into crevices most of us wouldn’t dare peek, LIFE Magazine had no equal. It’s scope of visual interest spanned across demographics. But unlike the world speeding past its lens, the magazine couldn’t keep up. For all intents and purposes, LIFE ceased to exist in 1972.

Even though LIFE’s luster had already diminished, its demise still left a gap. Like our waning network TV and the morning newspaper, LIFE Magazine held an institutional spot as the go-to medium for a people. It served as our communal photographic experience. Then it was gone.

life-coverA LIFE cover from 1952 shows the magazine in its hey day, when worlds and cultures from varied parts of the planet were whisked into our homes each week. Image courtesy of TIME/LIFE Archives.

Others tried to replicate it or invent a substitute. None was particularly successful. That voyeuristic gap has eventually come to be filled by an obsessive streaming of selfies, food, and pet images that amuse but don’t challenge us or hold our attention for long.

“The world goes faster and faster; information is being pounded so quickly,” said Co Rentmeester, a LIFE luminary. “People in general are harder to sit down and relax, and look and think about an image.”

Indeed, our modern experience with photographs since the ’70s has evolved rapidly and haphazardly compared to the early 20th century. Other magazines filled the void left by LIFE temporarily but not as powerfully as LIFE. There is no longer a central, communally resonating publication or web site where we fixate and linger. Even giant sharing sites and social media like Flickr, Google Photos, Instagram, Facebook blur the lines of WHERE an image is found or seen. We fly through pages of images, share one, download another, save one as a screenshot for a few days. Then we move on.

I raise this because I stumbled into NPR’s “The Picture Show” recently. The Picture Show, showcases photographers or exhibits of still photography that most of us would never stumble across in casual social media or seek out on our own.

Like LIFE Magazine, The Picture Show places the viewer squarely into a melange of images that make us squirm or make us ponder. There is Tyler Hick’s image of a woman protecting her children at a Nairobi mall terrorist attack; Hassan Hajjaj’s photos of Moroccan Muslim women on motorcycles; and a retrospect of Eliot Elisofon‘s 1950’s era images from LIFE Magazine.

None of these images allows us to easily leave and forget. They are all tied to the marvelous textual conversations where photojournalism gets its due–images married with words, an inextricable woven tapestry.

Our world has shrunk and the space we reserve for images and words has likewise shrunk. Our phones chime, stealing our immersive thoughts with a shared meme or a short video. Maybe we can redirect our thoughts back to a deeper, more meaningful image, but the phone chimes again with a query or a ping for a business email. The image we saw moments earlier fades or gets tangled in the day’s overload of imagery and sounds.

Was that a woman wearing a hijab riding a Honda? Did that happen in Nairobi? Who took that picture? What was that about? Where did I EVEN see that picture?

It’s lamentable that our connection to photographs has dwindled. The fibers that bind our collective memories to frozen moments are eroding or simply being overwhelmed by sheer quantity of images streaming as if the tap has no shut-off valve to stem the tide.

That’s where LIFE Magazine left us–a weekly faucet of what the outside world looked like. The images flowed in the day we grabbed the magazine from the rack or maybe it was dropped in the mailbox. We had seven days to pick it up, ponder, re-imagine a photo’s circumstances; absorb the words around it. The phone rang or the TV got turned on. But the magazine remained on the coffee table. It didn’t get pushed off the next day, hour or minute.

It remained.

LIFE as We Knew It

Objectivity and Our Blogs

One of the important elements I strive to impart on student writers is objectivity.

Some students interpret being objective to writing with no passion or writing blandly. With regards to blogging,” when I talk about “objectivity,” I mean that I want students to focus less on their own opinion as an OBVIOUS and OVERBEARING element of their writing style.

Certainly for beginning news writing students, I’m looking for unbiased, unfettered reporting that strips away bias or slant. But because we’re writing in this melange of media in Comm 410, we’re loosening our bonds to the strict interpretation of objectivity, yet still keeping our feet grounded in relevant information, supported factual evidence and sourcing that creates deeper understanding.

Editing Worm’s Katrina Oko-Odoi illustrates what I’m talking about. She issues three key effective measures that bloggers in a business environment must adhere to:

  • Maintain a reader’s interest
  • Provide useful information in an engaging manner
  • Avoid overt self-promotion

While Oko-Odoi’s article from Editing Worm is NOT based on purely journalistic standards, it does offer solid blogging advice that all writers should understand.

To an extent, we’re talking about contextual journalism. It’s not just what we say and what new information we bring to the table, but the relevance of our writing within the present mix of issues and events happening at the moment is what makes for stronger writing.

The stronger writers are those who are able to straddle this blurry line between objectivity and context without teetering too far to either side. That’s where the vein of gold is richest and deepest.

Objectivity and Our Blogs

Lying or Simply not Telling the Truth?

We toss around that word “lie” so easily and so often. That word has become such a part of the news coverage lately and NPR takes a powerful stance on its use. I don’t know if NPR is right or wrong, but the conversation is worth having.

I find this marvelous material to ponder. I think NPR is certainly making the case for precision of language:

http://www.spin.com/2017/01/npr-news-wont-call-donald-trumps-false-statements-a-lie/

 

Lying or Simply not Telling the Truth?

Photography and the Windshield

Those of us who inhale episodes of “Carpool Karaoke” know James Corden produces utterly watchable episodes of already beautiful people sitting in his car driving about. Aside from the delight of watching pop music stars sing along with their own songs on Corden’s car stereo, the episodes remind us that as long as there’s daylight, “magic hour” is almost always available in the front seat of our Chevys, Toyotas and Fords to make us look marvelous.

Unless it’s night or locusts are blocking out the sky, the forward bench or bucket seats of most any vehicle offer a near-perfect setting for a selfie.

Professional lighting rarely becomes the primary concern when using a smartphone. However, the resounding volume of self portraits created using the light of a windshield creates opportunity for extolling the quality of light found in the the front seat of a 2,000-pound softbox.

I had been silently watching the phenomena of front-seat selfies for a few years when my friend, Clare, posted an image in the dead of winter in Delaware. Sure, Clare has a magnificent mane of red hair and a dazzling photo presence, but the quality of the light in her Facebook post made me pause.

clare
Clare Consavage demonstrates the beauty of natural light in a car’s front seat in a December photo.

Clare, in her Honda Pilot, appeared impossibly more radiant than I’d seen her from other pictures where harsh or direct light painted a less-flattering selfie. I thought back to other selfies on Facebook where friends had posted from behind their windshield. Their eyes practically exploded through the screen and their skin glowed preternaturally from their driver-side seat.

Glamour magazine’s Petra Gugliemetti writes: “It’s so true! We’d never really stopped to think about it until now, but we’ve always instinctively known that the car’s diffused light does miraculous things to our faces: It’s bright enough to make skin glow, makeup colors pop, and enhance our hair’s highlights, but indirect enough that it doesn’t spotlight fine lines.”

Certainly, car makes and models vary. The light streaming in from a Porsche will be different from light flowing in from a Chevy Suburban. Clare told me she pulled the sun visor down for one shot. “Even that light difference was noticeable,” she said. But the principle is the same: large windows allow significant swaths of light to surround the subject. It’s like creating a giant rolling diffusion box.

But don’t get too cocky with the studio on wheels. The location of the parked–emphasis on PARKED–car makes a difference in the quality and quantity of light. Parking the Suburban in the middle of the desert at noon in the middle of summer will create quite the different portrait than that same Suburban parked in a rainforest at dawn.

The front seat itself is not magic. Any kind of diffuse, wraparound light generally lends a hand when trying to reduce wrinkles and create a soft glow. It just happens that being behind the wheel or in the passenger’s seat is more convenient than a photo studio; plus, the stereo controls are within reach.

Photography and the Windshield