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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Reading the photograph

A conundrum often faced by many who attempt a reading of photographs is the lack of captions — or ones such as those in the ‘an idyllic sunset’ or ‘a gushing torrent’ genre — these tell the viewer/reader little about their spatio-temporal provenance. Equally frustrating is the large body of images taken by anonymous photographers and this is particularly so for those that date from the early days of the camera. However, the frustrated viewer needs to keep in mind that a caption, too, need not be ‘innocent’ and that captions can also foreclose, if not prejudice, a viewing; on the other hand, there can be many interpretations to a captionless photograph depending on the viewers standpoint or worldview. While there has not been too much discussion on the role of the caption, anyone who wishes to take them seriously needs to look at the work of Dorothea Lange. A photographer whose ‘people’ photography can be ranked with those of Ansell Adams in the field of landscape, Lange changed the entire understanding of the photographic caption and indeed gave it a space that almost equalled that of the image itself.

Dorothea Lange’s monumental work that focused on abandoned landscapes as much as it did on gaunt faces of the Depression years in the US acquired a unique purchase not only for the power of her imagery but also because of the detailed captions that accompanied them. Her work has been sensitively analysed by Anne Whiston Spirn (Daring to Look), who points out that “to delete Lange’s captions is akin to cropping her picture” as for her there was a unity, a unique synergy between “the visual and the verbal image[s]”. Lange took photographs of “people in trouble” — her evocative image of ‘Migrant Mother’ (photograph) ricocheted across the world; a woman’s pathos soon became the symbol of a land in deep turmoil. She observed and documented the lives of farm labourers living in hovels and decrepit tents, noting down their comments in detail; by then, Lange was working for the government and invented a new form of reporting that combined the image with hand written notes, often with quotations from the subject. Dorothea Lange was a listener and a thinker as well as a photographer who realized the value of “just sticking around and being there, remaining there, not swooping in and out in a cloud of dust”; when those she wanted to photograph were suspicious, she took her time to explain why she was there, giving away as much of herself as she took from those she photographed.

That captions can become controversial in times of disaster became amply clear soon after Hurricane Katrina sped through the American South in August 2005. The more responsible international press as well as that in the United States of America started asking pertinent questions: was relief slow in coming because those most affected were poor, disprivileged Blacks, victims of inner-city indifference and squalor? Would the situation have been different if a predominantly white population had been similarly affected? In “It’s not looting if you are white”, written by Tania Ralli for the New York Times Service re-printed in The Asian Age of September 6, the author discussed two photographs that were reproduced with her article. The common caption used by Ralli for the two agency photographs says it all:

“SPOT THE DIFFERENCE: Information from the AP photographer described this young [black] man (above) as looting. In a similar visual circumstance (right), the white couple was described by a different agency’s photographer as finding food.”

The author goes on to discuss the origin of the two photographs — the Associated Press photographer, Dave Martin, had provided the caption “looting a grocery store” based on the fact that the young black boy had waded into a shop and come out with a case of soda and a stuffed garbage bag. Martin, according to the AP spokesperson, Jack Stokes, was following the agency’s guidelines where, if a person enters a business and emerges carrying goods, it is regarded as looting. Otherwise it is called ‘carrying’. On the other hand, Chris Graythen, who had taken the photograph for Getty Images which was distributed through AFP, said that from his vantage point on an expressway, he had seen the white couple go into a corner store. As he was not able to talk to them “so I had to draw my own conclusions”. He justified his caption by saying that taking necessities like food in an extreme situation could not be counted as looting: if people had been coming out of stores with DVD players, that, to his mind would have been looting. Some may well wonder at his justification...parenthetically, it is interesting to note that the original story by Ralli carried subsequent responses to the photographs and how the one by Martin was indeed removed from the website.

Dave Martin did not know that the young boy was a looter — neither did Chris Graythen know that the white couple were not looters. In fact, according to his definition, they were not looting. While Martin labelled his subject a looter, Graythen did not. What caption would Martin have given to a white subject in a similar situation — and would Graythen have been as sympathetic to a black couple? Undoubtedly, these are hypothetical questions, but they do point to the power of the image as well as to the power and role of authorial intervention — in this case, that of the photographer in deciding on captions. In both these cases, then, photographers, their captions and the media that carried them aimed at providing what is commonly know as a ‘realistic picture’, giving a human face to a natural disaster. Captions spoke of looting because there had been such cases reported; but the relevant point here is that by juxtaposing these two images and their tell-tale captions, Ralli drew attention to the fact that the latter can indeed influence readers and viewers who may otherwise not have been predisposed to think of blacks as looters and whites as survivors. That news photographs are rarely without captions predisposes them to influencing opinion one way or another.

What then is one to make of Dorothea Lange’s prodigious work with captions? A professor of landscape architecture who found in Lange’s work “an ethnographer’s eye, a writer’s ear, an artist’s vision”, Spirn’s advocacy of the photographer’s use of the caption even as critics reiterated the need for the photograph to stand on its own only make the discussion around the text-cum-photo’s role more interesting. As is the case with responsible ethnographers, Lange’s use of her subjects’ own words in the captions added to the veracity of what she was saying. At the same time, it was her point of view that selected the part of the conversation to report and her eye behind the viewfinder deciding on composition, content, angle and subject of the photograph. Inclusion and exclusion characterize any interpersonal communication where the viewer/reader is dependent on the information, visual or textual, being communicated by another. Although faithful and honest representations are heavily emotive terms, at the end of the day, these are what one has to hope for. And if it is the genius of the likes of Dorothea Lange whose commitment to her work and of a beleaguered people was never in question, the viewer cannot but accept her discerning and sympathetic eye.