When I was a newspaper editor, one constant directive to photographers was to “give us good captions with your pictures.” This wasn’t because people on the copy desk didn’t want the trouble of writing the text blocks; it was because the reportorial tasks of the photographer included the who-what-when-where-why-&-how that any news event required (as taught in J-101) and because we figured without clear captions, the readers would be lost.
I recently came across a blog on the New York Times Website that delves further into the relationship between captions and photos, to the point of suggesting the meaning of a picture changes if it is not described with text. Titled “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire,” this piece is by Errol Morris, a respected documentary filmmaker whose work includes The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line, and other provocative movies that explore the relationship between the press, public-relations machines, the real truth and manufactured appearances.
One of Morris’s points about still photography is that a “captionless photograph, stripped of all context, is virtually meaningless,” that the photo may or may not be true or false on its own, but the viewer cannot make a full judgment without words. Among examples he cites is the photo above which, Morris argues, doesn’t mean much without a identifying label.