Allowing Your Photographs to Speak


This article was originally published in February 2017.

“The biggest tragedy lies in the deliberate unravelling of a photograph and reducing it to a bunch of words.”

Photographers have a lot to say today. The text accompanying their images are slowly turning into short descriptive essays. The choice of words in them offer no respite as well, often complicating the thought behind the project. In fact, it has become almost fashionable to sound ambiguous, with a hint of the mystic, qualities that have become requirements when putting out one’s work across. Now, a whole platoon of words are necessary to describe what the image should be able to project on its own.

So why are we afraid to state our thoughts in a simple and coherent manner? Is it because we feel the need to validate or emphasise on the seriousness of our work, and therefore resort to imposing words and phrases? Take the Farm Security Administration for instance. Under the tutelage of Roy Stryker, it produced photographs in the many thousands, each one accompanied with a caption. The words used were not clinical, but detached enough to just about inform the viewer of the content of the image. Even when you look at some of the most iconic photographs in history, very often the captions end up stating the obvious, like the Migrant Mother (Dorothea Lange) or A Lunch Atop A Skyscraper (Charles Clyde Ebberts) or The Falling Soldier (Robert Capa). Once again, the words were used to inform, and not support the content of the image. Moreover, by stating the obvious, the viewer wastes no time mulling over the meaning behind the words, an occurrence more commonplace today.

No word, I believe, is as beautiful and mysterious as the word ‘Untitled’. It sounds as if the image is continued to be made. The anonymity of the word gives away everything, yet reveals nothing about the photograph. You, the viewer, are left alone with the image, to uncover its various fragments and make the necessary interpretations. And once you begin, you will be surprised to find out how much you’re capable of interpreting when there are no words to distract you. Several decades earlier, Ansel Adams had already mirrored these thoughts when he said, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

Tags: Conchita Fernandes, opinion, Perspectives, March 2017, Allowing Your Photographs to Speak