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Heading towards the mountain! = WRONG

In the following excerpt from a new lesson at MatadorU, we see how providing backstory and context adds layers to your work.

STRONG CAPTIONS are often either overlooked or not given significant thought by journalists, which leads to obvious captions that read almost like afterthoughts, essentially repackaging or restating what the viewer can already see in the shot for him or herself. An example would be the shot / caption above.

Giving context: what the viewer can’t see

Instead of simply reducing / restating what’s already obvious in the photo, strong captions — what we at Matador call “narrative” captions — give the viewer context, backstory, information that the viewer CAN’T see for him or herself. This includes things like:

  • Place names
  • Subject names
  • Backstory on the scene (example: at what point of the trip the shot occurred)
  • Backstory or technical info on the shot itself
  • Challenges or special circumstances not identifiable in the shot itself
  • Information on future events the shot puts into perspective

With that in mind, let’s look at this same shot again with the actual caption (both from Matador Ambassador Drew Tabke):

This is an image taken from Chopo Diaz’s GoPro which our pilot, Drake Olsen, attached to the tail of his Cessna 180. Drake, a former Le Mans Porche race car driver, is an amazing pilot capable of doing amazing things with his plane. In this image he is flying straight towards the wall of spines on the high peak above our camp which we eventually skied.

The reason we refer to these as “narrative” captions is because if done correctly, they create narrative layers, a sense not of the moment simply “frozen in time” but part of a story.  It adds the temporal sense, the transparency, the window into the journalist’s experience that helps us as readers / viewers to enter the story.

Here’s another example from the same photo essay from Drew:

During the Klondike Gold Rush, the Lynn Canal was a major route for miners heading to Skagway, Alaska, hoping to strike it rich. We experienced the same feeling of heading into the unknown as we sailed north on this historic and dramatic waterway with our expedition equipment packed below deck. The ferry took us from Alaska’s capital, Juneau, four hours north to the fishing town of Haines.

One last example of narrative captioning comes from Matador contributing editor Daniel Britt. Notice how the photographer’s descriptions imply not just his passing through the area but having spent significant time and developing a relationship with the culture.

A street merchant bags a few grams of naswar — Afghan snuff — in Herat. The fine, moist, green powder — typically taken sublingually — is derived from tobacco treated with lime for its alkaline capabilities. It produces a dizzying high that quickly gives way to nausea and oral-esophageal burning. You’ll grow to love it, especially in the dry, cold Afghan Decembers, or waiting around for a tuk-tuk, slaughtering a sheep, any of those. It’s pain that amplifies the senses. It’s also one of the few vices I’ve seen Afghan women enjoy — embarassing because it took me two trips and several months to figure out a functional dosage. Try a pinch placed between your cheek and gum tissue grasping your left-side molars. Photo by Daniel C. Britt

* * *

A question to ask yourself before signing off on your captions: How does my caption support or undercut my experience with / knowledge of the place and culture that I’m photographing?

About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is Senior Editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism) and Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

  • Jenny Williams

    Whoa, uncanny timing. I’ve been thinking about captions all week! Thanks for this succinct approach–super helpful.

  • Bordering Beyond

    I didn’t ever think to approach my photos in this way. It makes sense, though. I’ll definitely be using this tip for my next photo essay. :-)

  • Candice Walsh

    I seriously struggle with this all the time. Thanks for the lesson!

  • Samuel Sandoval

    I have to turn in a photo album for my final next week. I was unsure of how to use captions. This came at the perfect timing!

  • Laura Cook

    Very helpful article. Thanks!

  • Dinko Hristov

    My captions sound good at the time of writing, but when I revisit them, I wonder what made them sound good to me the first time around…. thank you for the tips.

  • Mike C

    So essentially captions for photographs can be like footnotes in a book. Often adding new information to the story. I like it.

  • Mike C

    So essentially captions for photographs can be like footnotes in a book. Often adding new information to the story. I like it.

  • Mike C

    So essentially captions for photographs can be like footnotes in a book. Often adding new information to the story. I like it.

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