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Visual Ironies

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


Visual Ironies


6 Responses

  1. Bryan W. says

    The curator on this exhibit is certainly ‘walking on thin ice’ by assuming that visual imagery can speak in a more clear and truthful manner when somehow independent of textual meaning. To assume, as you claim they do, that images unadulterated by captions offer a more ‘ideologically neutral or transparent’ view of reality is certainly unsupportable.

    But while captions are often times needed to limit the range of possible interpretations of any given photograph, one wonders whether or not there are instances when textual framing – whether in the form of a word or a narrative – are NOT needed? And how do images that are unaccompanied by textual anchors function in rhetorically distinct ways from images accompanied by words? Simply put, do photographs always need captions to make sense, to be rhetorically powerful to an array of audiences? My guess is that the answer that question is ‘No’.

    In the above post, you draw attention to the important of context in framing the range of possible reading one can supply to an image (so, the possible interpretations of a photograph in a museum is radically different than the possible interpretations of the same photograph in a family photo album). This seems to suggest that some photographs, when contextualized tactically can come to communicate some rhetorical powerful ideas without the assistance of textual fragments (e.g. photographs of the Holocaust in the Holocaust Museum in D.C. probably express their meanings pretty clearly). Put another way, photographs can draw on contexts implicitly and thus encourage audiences familiar with that context to derive particular meanings accordingly, without the assistance of words.

    And I wonder about the rhetorical power of images that perhaps offer jarring and disruptive displays, even if the possible meanings of the images are not necessarily specific (‘sublime’ images might be an example here). So what about the following image, in which human rights activists are garbed in the ‘iconic’ clothing of a Guantanamo Bay detainee and staged outside of the Supreme Court.


    The imagery here – especially the juxtaposition between the detainee and the supreme court – seems to offer some visually-cued ideas, despite not having verbal framing. Of course, as in images like these, verbal discourse will ensue in response to the photograph and verbal discourse certainly offered much of the impetus for this display. Yet, these activists chose visual rhetorics to disseminate a message, rhetorics that are not reduced to verbal discourse. Why?

    Either way, to what extent do you think that images can operate in rhetorically effective ways that are distinct from verbal frames?

  2. lucaites says

    Bryan: Your point is very well taken. And I tried to make the point — albeit somewhat implicitly — that captioning is not just a function of attaching words as title or legend to an image. Photos are also “captioned” functionally by how they are located in space. That can be a function of putting a photo above or below the fold in a newspaper or by the relative size of an image in relationship to the length of the story that is reported or by juxtaposing images. But also by virtue of the texture of its presentation — high quality print vs. grainy newspaper image, or blown up to enormous size in a billboard or in a museum, and so on. The image you point to re. the Guantanamo prisoners is an interesting example. But it has two problems. The first, of course, is that there is something of a caption within the image itself since the words on the sign direct the viewer in some measure to the meaning of the image (whether directly or ironically). But then too, it is not like we are coming to this image apart from any captioning — either in the traditional sense or in expanded sense that I’ve suggested. Is the picture visually evocative? Sure. But apart from captioning its hard to know what the evocation might be. I think we do better to follow W.J.T. MItchell’s heed in recognizing that “all media are mixed media” and to move from there rather than to fetishize the visual as a pure form.

  3. Bryan says

    Good point. But – and I will be sure to polish this question before Mitchell’s visit – I wonder what is lost when we revert to the somewhat obvious notion that ‘all media are mixed media.’ Sure, film includes sounds and words and visuals. And sure, sensory experience can rarely if ever be essentialized or purified to only one particular mode of sensory experience. Nevertheless, it seems to me that critics and intellectuals have always assumed – sometimes unconsciously – that visual rhetorics are always partly if not essentially verbal rhetorics (and aural rhetorics). From Olson and Goodnight’s work on PETA to Enck-Wanzer’s work on ‘intersectional rhetoric,’ it would seem to me that the notion of ‘mixed media’ is the norm. Might this – and this is a big ‘might’ – occur at the expense of expanding our understanding of the unique rhetorical dynamis of visual rhetoric, as something distinct and at times independent from other modalities of sensory experience and mediation? I don’t know.

  4. lucaites says

    It is a good question. But what we need is a case in which we can examine it. What would be the example, the representative anecdote of the thing you are talking about. The problem with the Guantanamo example you gave is that it is more like a philosopher’s thought experiment –let’s imagine that — and what we need is something that points to the possibility of the thing itself … at least one instance where we might encounter the phenomenon.

  5. […] Update: The No Captions Needed site, authored by two professors, one from Indiana University and the other from Northwestern University and described by them as ‘…a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society.” also discussed the ‘no caption’ approach at this exhibit which you can read here: Visual Ironies […]

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