Should the Photo Speak for Itself?

…or is it OK to add a lengthy caption to elucidate its meaning?

I know this is a contentious issue among “purist photographers” who believe fervently that the image should stand alone, without any explanation at all. Their argument goes something like this:

“What’s the point of taking a photo if you then need to tell people what’s good about it? If the picture is good enough it will be understood by anyone who sees it, especially by other photographers who’ve addressed similar subjects and encountered the same problems of making a meaningful image.”

Having studied art history I don’t agree with this view because I’ve learned a huge amount from expert commentary and I know it to be indispensable to our understanding of the subject.

Great paintings can’t always speak for themselves. They’re created within an historical and social context, often with a heavy dose of intellectual content. Today’s onlooker has a different store of knowledge and is maybe a bit rusty on Greek, Roman and Biblical tales, depictions of which fill the paintings on gallery walls. Surely it’s helpful to know exactly why Judith is holding the head of Holofernes when you see her doing so in a painting by Botticelli, Caravaggio or Gustav Klimt?

Explaining Your Work
In my recent book “Street Photography Is Cool” I analyse many of my photos and draw the viewer’s attention to aspects of their meaning, composition, and the aesthetic intent behind them. I do the same in these blog posts. If you ask me why I do this, sometimes my reply is to show you another photo and talk about that!

For example, take the featured image at the top of this article. I’ve shown this to several people whose reaction has clearly revealed a complete misunderstanding of the image. “Sure, that’s a typical street scene in busy Bangkok.”

I reply: “Yes, but do you notice anything peculiar about it?”

If they’re viewing it on the small screen of a smartphone the answer is usually a hesitant “no.”

“Look at the traffic cop on the left,” I explain. “He’s spattered with bird poo. That’s because he’s fake.”

At this point there’s a sudden exclamation of recognition when the viewer gets the message and sees why I took the picture.

The Fake and the Real
Perhaps this is obvious to you if you’re viewing the photo on your desktop display, but on a phone the traffic cop looks quite real, especially if you give the image just a cursory glance.

Normally, it can be disappointing when people don’t “get the point,” but in this instance I find it amusing. Exploring the fine dividing line between what’s fake and what’s real is one of the themes of my street photography. When people are fooled, I think I’m achieving my goal.

Incidentally, a year later I went back to the same spot at night and took another picture of the fake cop (below).

Fake cop on duty

It’s fun to see him from the front. He looks quite smart, doesn’t he? So maybe someone’s cleaned him up in the intervening months. The remaining bits of bird poo look more recent.

Of course, the image may still need some explanation for people who don’t read Thai. The grand announcement on the board he’s holding so proudly is simply telling drivers that the entrance to the coach station is 100 metres further down the road.

I think that splendid coach is going even further in the opposite direction. It’ll take you all the way to Laem Ngop ferry, for crossing to Elephant Island (Koh Chang). No kidding.

Leave a Comment