Must Photographs Be Accompanied By Words?

December 14, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

When you have a moment, take a look at this picture. What do you think it’s about? What ‘story’, if any, do you see in it? Does it give you a positive outlook, or feeling? Does it make you feel less positive, more uneasy? 

On the one hand, you might see the image as a good-feeling story of hope: a walk along a leaf-lined pathway surrounded by a cascade of colourful plants, bushes and leaves, through a nicely lit mosaic-patterned entrance leading onto a new, brighter future. Even the empty cans are a symbol of turning your life on its head and leaving a less desirable past behind.


Conversely, the image might make you feel wary. Less a story of hope, more one of fear, maybe for the immediate future on this journey, or metaphorically about what’s in store around the corner. The dumped cans, a sloping walk down towards a subway that appears dark beyond the strip-light, and the vegetation, colourful on the surface but closing in around the entrance, all symbols of a path leading to a potentially troublesome outcome.


In the absence of any title or accompanying description, the story is whatever you think the image says to you. And that’s fine. But is this satisfactory? Do you think an image should be shared without words, leaving the viewer to decide about what is being portrayed? Or is it incumbent on the photographer to tell you the story? Or at least give you a guide through a title? After all, doesn’t every picture have something, even an essence, of the photographer in it? By not providing words to accompany an image, isn’t the photographer abdicating responsibility for it?


For my part, while I always share images with at least a title, I don’t consider it an issue if a photographer decides to publish their work without supporting text. Why not let people make up their own stories, interpret pictures how they choose, take from them what they will? Yes, it potentially leaves the photographer open to misinterpretation and the image to misunderstanding. But maybe that’s okay with the photographer, who wants to leave a minimal ‘footprint’ and let the picture do all the talking. 


Regarding the picture attached, it does have a title. I will also say that neither of the above storylines are what I was thinking when making the photograph. My ‘story’ was much simpler. 


I saw both positives and negatives in this scene, many mentioned already. The positives: the leaf-lined path, the autumn bloom and colours, the balance of light and shade, the mosaic pattern entrance and the welcome light. The negatives: the dumped, empty cans left on a railing, the concrete facia, a downwards walk to a lonely looking, dark, underpass. While it’s fair to say I found the negatives a little more compelling than the positives, they didn’t over-power them. Instead, they came together as one. 


The title? When autumn meets urban. I did say it was simple.