Our language is fettered with visual clichés. “Seeing is believing,” but also “don’t believe everything you see.” And don’t forget that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Of course, our very favorite visual cliché here at NCN is “No caption needed.” As the title of both our book and blog, some readers often assume that we mean to be arguing that photographs speak for themselves and that captions are truly not necessary. In point of fact, our use of the phrase is meant to be ironic (it would actually be in quotes in the title of our book so as to call attention to it as a cultural saying and thus to set ourselves apart from it, but our publisher insisted that using quotation marks would confuse search engines and make it harder for people to find the book). The irony points in two directions. On one hand we mean to argue that in most instances captions are very much needed, and on the other hand, we mean to argue that whether needed or not, they are virtually unavoidable.
Both points are driven home by a recent NYT Lens showcase titled “Stirring Images, No Names.” The showcase reports on a photographic exhibit about to open in London titled “Beware the Cost of War.” The exhibit consists of violent and often gruesome images from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taken by both Israeli and Palestinian photographers. And what makes the show unique is that it “lacks captions and credits next to the images.” The point, according to Yoav Galai, the photographer who curated the exhibit, was to “tear [the photographs] away from their narrative” under the assumption that (according to the NYT reporter) “without words, the pictures will be freer to speak for themselves.” The problem, of course, is that a “picture is worth a thousand words” but without some minimal narrative framing to guide and contextualize image for the “hearer,” it may as well be speaking in tongues.
The first image in the exhibit is a case in point.
It is really hard to know what this is a photograph of, let alone to have any sense of what it might mean or say. The person laying in the field appears to be a soldier. That much we can presumably tell from his uniform and gun. But can we be sure? And if he is a soldier who does he represent? Why is he alone? Or is he alone? After all, we cannot see outside of the frame. Perhaps he has friends (or enemies) surrounding him. Is he fighting a battle? Did he dessert his unit? Is he asleep or dead? And how did he come to be in this place? And where is this place? And on and on … There are no doubt a thousand things—or more—that the photograph could be saying. But apart from some narrative it is hard to know what the point might be. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that as art should be evocative in ways that speak to each viewer differently. But even there, no viewer comes to a picture as a blank slate to absorb the pure sense of the image without some baggage—some narrative frame—that directs their attention and guides the understanding.
That leads to my second point, which is that like it or not, captions (and the narrative frames that they impute) are unavoidable, even when a curator decides that he wants to tear the image “away from its narrative.” Look at the above image a second time, now as it is actually displayed in the exhibit and as viewers encounter it for the first time:
The title superimposed over the photograph is, of course, a caption. And it very clearly directs the viewers attention to a specifically normative interpretation of the image. That interpretation, guided by a warning, is reinforced by a prior warning that precedes the photograph to announce that the images in the exhibit are “graphic.” Taken together, the two warnings function as a less than subtle vector for guiding the viewer to “hear” what the image has to say in a very specific voice.
But even if the narrative framing here was not so obvious—and so explicitly verbal—there are a multitude of other ways in which the photograph is more subtly and effectively captioned and framed. For one thing, it is featured in a photographic exhibit in a London gallery, which if nothing else marks it as a special artistic or documentary artifact and guides our engagement with it. Were we to encounter it in a newspaper or on a billboard or in a Soldiers of Fortune magazine the specific meaning of the form of mediation would be different, but the general effect of its form as a mode of captioning and framing would still be palpable. Additionally, the many images in the exhibit (as with the selection reproduced by the Lens) are placed in a spatial and temporal relationship to one another so as to create a flow or montage effect according to which the meaning and force of any individual image is accented and implicated by the images that surround it.
One can withhold credits and specific captions from individual images, to be sure, but to believe that doing so allows the pictures to “speak for themselves” in any pure sense is simply mistaken—more a fantasy than a real possibility. The problem here is not that we might not learn something by valuable by bracketing or withholding the specific captions that name or frame a particular image—and indeed, the power of “Beware the Cost of War” is really quite valuable in this regard as it evocatively underscores the human tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … and maybe of all human conflict; rather, the problem is in the risk that we might be fooled into forgetting that photographs are artistic creations—not ideologically neutral or wholly transparent windows on the world—and in that register they never entirely speak for themselves.
Photo Credit: Uriel Sinai