I used to write long captions for my photos. It could take me hours to decide a title or a story that could make the image more compelling on social media. Even if the street-scene or the gestures of the portrait spoke for themselves I always felt the need to say something. I don’t know if it was an habit I learned from journalism –always give context, they say– but I felt that a photo without words was like an abandoned creature. This is an example:
Two young women approached Dimitri on Coney Island’s beach. –Are you a man or a woman?,– asked one of them. -I’m a man,– he replied gently. –But you look like a woman. Do you have a dick down there?,– asked the second one pointing to Dimitri’s red thong. –Yes, I do,– said Dimitri with a smile, enjoying their confusion. –But when you have sexual intercourse, do you do it with men or with women?,– asked the first one. –With women, I love women, I do not take men. But I like to look like this,– answered Dimitri with his deep voice and strong Russian accent. –I’ve heard about it,– said the first woman– it’s called the ‘middle sex’ isn’t it? –Not precisely. But you could call it third sex: Not man, not woman. Postmodernism declared that genders are equal, there’s no distinction… –I see– interrupted the second woman, not interested in having philosophical discussions on a beautiful sunny day–: You’re “in between.” –Categories like “men and women,” “black and white,” are ways that those in power use to distract and divide people. That’s why traditionally men get together with men, women with women, blacks with blacks, and they’re easier to control. I don’t believe in those categories. I challenge them… The young women were not there to understand, and they left after taking photos of Dimitri with their phones. Had they asked a couple questions more and maybe he would have told them that he’s “more than forty years old”; that he’s a blogger and activist; that he’s a convinced socialist who came to New York one decade ago to experience and understand capitalism; that he loves a Russian popular tale about a prince who makes miracles and is admired and loved by its people even though he’s androgynous… He told me his stories with Coney Island’s iconic wonder wheel on the background. I love the symbolism of the wheel: Everything revolves around the same point, all that goes up comes down, time is circular, life is a permanent transformation. It was an appropriate place to portray Dimitri.
I recently stopped doing that. Now I use very short and explicit captions like “Couple in The Bronx,””Sunset in Queens,” or “Q Line.” The main reason is time: It was taking me a whole night to post a single image on Instagram. The other reason is that I believe that the visual language should be independent from the verbal one, and I don’t want to condition the perception of the viewers. I found support on this blog post of the street photographer Eric Kim, who says that:
By telling too much information of a photograph, you close off the image. You don’t leave it up to interpretation. It becomes less interesting or puzzling to the viewer.
However, now I’m not so sure about avoiding well elaborated captions. The reason of my doubts is the essay of Walter Benjamin that we recently read in class. In A short history of photography, Benjamin gave a significant importance to the caption as an element that prevents photos to be a simple play of associations. In a world where photos are reproduced en masse with commercial intentions, photography as an art should become a construction of meaning. And there’s where the caption comes in. To him, the caption can become “the most important part of the shot” because it offers the reading of the photographer and it’s a way of naming what he/she wants to express. In a context flooded by images, the photographer must know how to verbally articulate why yours is meaningful.
What do you think about that? He wrote the essay in the 1930s. Do you think that his idea is still valid in our context? Honestly, I don’t know. What I know is that I’m exploring again with captions that are not too long, but that try to point what I think is the most interesting aspect of the photo.
The question is open. I will be posting examples of photographers who use captions in the way that Benjamin suggested.