As a photographer, it wasn’t always obvious why I needed to learn how to write well. After all, a good image should stand on its own, shouldn’t it? We shouldn’t have to explain the photo to a viewer if we’ve done our job in crafting our photograph.
To a certain degree, this is true. The photograph needs to be able to speak to a viewer. Story elements that we want to convey should be carefully arranged and presented so that the viewer can more easily connect with the deeper meaning behind the photo.
I also know that there are MANY of you that completely recoil in disgust at the idea of writing any sort of caption, let alone even placing a title, on your work. It’s why, when you study so much of the history of photography, you’ll find really big name artists using titles on their photos like “Untitled 046”.
Little to no description of a series.
It’s pure photography.
Except it’s foolish.
Over the years, I’ve waffled back and forth over whether or not descriptions, captions, and titles were a good thing or just something that photographers with work that couldn’t stand on it’s own used. Sure, I even went through a brief period where I became convinced (due largely to outside sources such as podcasts in the earliest days of my photographic journey) that IF you used a caption it was just a way for you to hide your subpar work.
In essence, if you had to tell a story in words to go along with your photo, the photo itself must not be any good.
Let me be clear.
I DO NOT think that way any longer.
That kind of thinking is, in my humble opinion, completely short sighted and foolish. You’re essentially shooting yourself in the foot.
And when it comes to your audience, you are giving ALL control to them and can only HOPE and WISH that your message comes across clearly.
And as the saying about hope and wishes goes… you can wish in one hand and crap in the other, guess which will fill up first.
Why you need to put effort into writing as a photographer
The simple fact is that no matter how clearly your photograph speaks to you, YOU are not your entire audience. Every person that views your work has different life experiences, different viewpoints, and different moods.
I’ll repeat this for you guys in the back.
You can’t assume everyone thinks exactly like you.
It’s what makes us, as a human race, so utterly fascinating.
By choosing not to write a title or caption with your work you are just hoping that people will kind of see what you were going for. But those odds are pretty low in reality.
Here was my turning point.
I’ve always thought of photography as a form of art. Much like painting, writing, music, film, and, well… you get the point. The goal is to express yourself creatively, tell a story, share your vision.
When a book is written, a lot of effort goes into writing a synopsis for the back cover that will hopefully catch your interest with an overview of the story so that you’ll want to buy it. Further more, a book is nothing BUT words crafted in a way to let you fully immerse yourself in the story.
Musicians put a ton of effort into crafting lyrics and words that help you feel the music on a more personal level.
Don’t even get me started on filmmakers.
So why would you feel that your photograph is somehow above all of that?
Even more importantly, why would you as a photographer, NOT want to take advantage of all the tools at your disposal to help guide your audience through the visual story you are telling? Thus giving them an easier path to truly connecting with the work you are creating.
At the end of the day, isn’t the goal as an artist to connect with your audience? To make work that speaks to someone else on a deeply personal level?
Then ditch the ego and learn to craft words to accompany your photographs that can serve as tour guide for you.
If you leave it up to chance, chances are they’ll miss your point.
Right about now you’re probably thinking I’m up on my high horse preaching.
Maybe I am just a little.
But this is important so sorry not sorry.
I do want to clarify one thing here though. When I say learn to craft compelling words to go with your art, I’m NOT saying that you should write a flat out description of the photograph. Don’t just write adjectives that define what they are seeing in the photo. Find a way to share a few(or more than a few) words that help guide the viewer down the path.
It’s true, as a viewer we don’t always want to be told what to think of a photograph or piece of art. We want to have room to interpret it from our own viewpoint. This is often the argument for NOT titling or writing anything to go with your work. I get it.
This is where learning to write, to truly craft even just a single sentence, can be vital.
Let me show you an example.
In the photo at the top of this post we have a moody winter scene.
I made this photo in early winter a year or so back. Now if I put a simply descriptive caption with it, it’ll convey nothing of the story I was trying to share. Take a look and see what I mean – descriptive caption incoming.
Sure. That explains the photo.
But that’s about it.
Seeing that photo with that caption, do you feel any sense of connection to me as an artist or the story I am trying to portray?
It could be that you are trying to think of your own backstory, but most likely you look at it and think “oh look, a winter scene” and want to move on.
Here’s the power in a crafting a caption, sharing a glimpse into what your photographic vision and voice were trying to say.
That’s the caption I used when I shared this image a while back on Instagram. It is like reading the first line in a new story, inviting you into the image to explore and wonder what happens next.
Not only that, but it brings you to a place and time, invites you to that feeling of early winter and first snow. It also hints at a bit of a deeper story. Nothing descriptive. No boring adjectives. Just a simple, well crafted bit of text that serves as a guide for the viewer.
Is it cheating to write text that “manipulates” a viewer into reading into the photo along the lines of what you are trying to communicate? Well, is it cheating to watch a movie with your eyes open?
Not at all.
It’s YOUR art.
If you have something you want to convey to potential viewers, why wouldn’t you use every single tool in your toolbox to help communicate that message.
Would you try to build a house without using a saw or a hammer? Sure it could probably be done, but why make things harder on yourself and your viewer for the sake of your precious ego?
Learn to write. Enjoy the process of finding ways to further communicate your message in your art.
There is one side benefit that putting effort into writing will have on your photography(or whatever art you are sharing). You’ll find that engaging the writing imagination alongside your photographic vision, new stories will emerge.
More interesting photography projects, leading to more writing, leading to, well, a never ending loop. It helps you stay self-inspired as you continue finding new stories to tell.
Don’t let your ego deprive you of reaching your audience in a truly meaningful way.
You love your art and you want your viewers to love it as well. Learn to craft a few good words about your image and make the path for those viewers as clear as you possibly can.
Absolutely leave some wiggle room for interpretation on their end, but make it painless for them to clearly see the story you are trying to tell.
They say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.
Lead the viewer to the water’s edge, they’ll decide to drink or not. But don’t make them fumble through the forest trying to find the path to the water.
David (Usually Dave) Szweduik is a photographer, podcaster, and all around geek from the great state of Minnesota and can be found weekly on his podcast Adventures in Creativity. There you’ll find him having conversations fueled by curiosity around the amazing world of all things creativity.