Making the Case for Captions

Marc Feustel

The caption is an art form, but one that’s in danger of becoming forgotten, especially in the online era when images can be copied and pasted without much attention paid to titles, captions or even the photographer’s name. And yet a well-written, carefully considered caption could make all the difference, not just to the average viewer, but also to photo editors and curators who may be considering your work.

Understandably, many photographers struggle with the process of associating words with their images. But keep in mind that captions can be approached in a variety of ways, and you can choose the style that best suits you. For example, London-based fine-art photographer Tomoko Yoneda uses captions to transform what appear to be ordinary landscapes into places that are heavily laden with meaning by introducing their past. Thanks to her use of captions, her work is the perfect illustration of how what you see is not always what you get.

In her series “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar,” a photographic inventory of some of the hidden sides of the United States, award-winning New York–based photographer Taryn Simon uses highly detailed captions to take the viewer beyond the appealing surface of her pictures to tell a broader story. In one image of the CIA headquarters, Simon’s caption not only identifies the artworks that appear in the image, but also provides a brief history of the CIA’s art collecting program and the potential political motivations behind it.

Japanese photographer Hiroh Kikai’s portraits also rely heavily on captions, which he sees as “intrinsically linked” to his images. His portrait captions might mention a person’s profession (“A bookbinder”) or a detail about their apperance (“A man with four watches”), or he might reference a moment outside the frame itself (“A young man about to make a peace sign for the camera”). He gives just enough information to set off questions in our minds, bringing the people he photographs to life.

So while it’s true that a photo should speak for itself, it’s important to remember that a caption is also an important part of your work—one that can sometimes make a good picture into a great one.

Marc Feustel writes the photo blog eyecurious.com.



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