Seldom in my years of writing TOP have I gotten more private email responses to a post than those garnered by "In Praise of Captions." I suspect many people wanted to respond but felt a certain peril in entering into a public discussion that they might have sensed was a bit volatile, or had the potential to be.
So, as a sort of corrective, I thought I'd put forth a modest exercise, a possible self-assignment. Sort of the same thing as the "Praise" post and its followups, but inverted into purely positive form. Now, please do note that I am suggesting this just as an exercise...that is, as something to try that you might learn from, assuming you're not already used to doing it. I'm not trying to dictate to anyone how they should work on a permanent basis (nor am I suggesting that people who don't do this are doing anything wrong).
So anyway, here it is. First, take a picture of something important, or important to you, or at least interesting or curious, in which the subject of the picture is clear. A picture such that anyone can deduce what you meant to show—what the picture is of—or, at least, that you can defend as showing that thing clearly. A photograph in which the facts of the picture are in evidence. I might even go out on a limb and call such a picture a "portrait," albeit in the loosest possible sense in terms of its subject matter, which need not necessarily even be a noun. Could be an action or an event, too.
Next, scribble down—the words need not be turned to a literary polish—the Five W's of that picture. (At the link, note especially the first sentence under the subheading "Principle.") Do take the time to really write them down—don't just think about it and pretend that's as good.
Next—no need to write these answers down—ask yourself a few questions about your picture.
- Did you "get it"? Have you given an adequately satisfactory idea of what the thing looks like? Could you have done better?
- Is the photograph good?
- Was the subject worth photographing? Worth having a photograph of? To you? Would others think so, do you think? Is there anyone you can ask about that?
- Rate the picture for honesty, on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (good).
Finally—pen or pencil in hand again—write down, briefly, the story of the photograph. Again, no requirement for eloquence, no points off for not being a writer. (The work of Jim Goldberg comes to mind, in which he lets his subjects write on the print what the picture means to them. Their lack of writerly eloquence itself is often eloquent.)
By Jim Goldberg
Once you've finished, repeat nine more times. (An aside: if you undertake my exercise in a contentious spirit and try to make a mockery of it, I'm not sure you still won't get just as much out of it.) Note that it might take a while to collect ten of these.
When you've finished all ten, time for a few more questions (again, no need to write the answers to these down either):
- Are these pictures different than your usual ones?
- Do you think they're better or worse?
- Has this exercise at all changed the way you look at things when you're deciding what to shoot?
- If you'll keep any of them, will you keep them because they're good photographs or photographs you're proud to have made, etc., or will you keep them because of what they show—or perhaps both?
As with any exercise, this is just a suggestion. Exercises are for people who are learning, not for people who already know.
Me, I'm still learning.
P.S. Once you get the hang of this, the next time you're looking through "test shots" or Flickr flotsam or random pictures adventitiously encountered hither and yon, let a little voice go off in your head asking, "What's this a picture of?" Not complicated, but you might find it can be more revealing than you might imagine.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.