From artist statements to press releases, from captions to pitches, modern photography is expressed in text to a much larger extent than the maxim ‘a photograph is worth a thousand words’. However, this transferral of intention from one medium into another is wrought with potential pitfalls; a lot can be lost in translation. This miscommunication is not even necessarily due to a different person taking on the task of interpretation – the guilty party for increased confusion, or diminished impact, could be the very photographer who produced the work. After all, just because a person is skilled behind a camera does not mean that he or she is capable of talking about or writing about what appears in the image. With these difficulties in mind, this article offers a brief guide to photographers on the practice of writing about their work.
Getting Started: Who is this text for, anyway?
Whether you’re writing a project statement or grant application, let’s assume that you already know that you need to write something about your work, but do you also know why you’re writing the text, and for whom? They may seem like questions that will answer themselves, once you’ve written something, but that’s simply not the case. A text has to be written with a goal, and a specific target group of readers who will have to gain something from it. If you write a flowery, poetic text to accompany your project of political photos, and you’re trying to sell your photos to a newspaper, that isn’t going to work, just like war photographs aren’t going to be useful for a tourism bureau. There isn’t intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ writing, just as there isn’t intrinsically good or bad photography – it has to be good for something, and good to someone.
Identifying the audience to whom you’re writing is the first step in determining if your text accomplishes the goals it needs to.
Consider the differences between the following three texts, describing the same (imaginary) body of work:
Drugs. Violence. Love. Meet Jane Doe and her husband Reggie, two coke addicts in Detroit who spiral out of control in the confines of their broken-down home.
This series was completed over a period of eighteen months, between 2012 and 2013, during which I visited and photographed Jane Doe and Reggie, a married couple of squatters who have taken up residence in a condemned house in Detroit.
I want viewers to understand the difficult lives of the people living in the slums of Detroit, where mass unemployment has led to drug addiction and home foreclosure. My goal is that viewers sympathize with Jane Doe and Reggie as victims of unfortunate circumstances.
This series is imaginary but, while you read through each of the descriptions, surely some images come to your mind about what the photos probably look like.
All of these sentences tell us something about the series, but each takes a different perspective. None of them is necessarily ‘better’ than the others, though they do differ in tone and the degree of objectivity. Depending on the intended audience of the text, any of these might be the more appropriate direction to take.
It is possible, however, that one or more of the texts completely misrepresents what actually appears in the photographs – we’ll get to that later.
The Spectrum of Subjectivity to Objectivity
In writing, just as in photography, there is always some level of narrative in play. All writing falls somewhere on a spectrum between subjective and objective, whether you intend it to or not, so it’s important to have control over what message you’re communicating through not only the literal words but also the subtext of your language.
Press releases, for example, are typical purveyors of subjective language, frequently making use of unverifiable superlatives (e.g. ‘the best landscape photographer alive today’, ‘most impressive work to date’, ‘most shocking’, ‘biggest name in photography’). This text doesn’t add to the reader’s knowledge of a topic or their ability to critically analyse context – it’s just hype. The key distinction about this language is that it goes beyond expressing only an opinion -- it is intended to be persuasive, communicating opinion as though it were fact. It makes sense to use such text in marketing, which relies on hype, but not in an artist statement, biography or journalistic article, which are easily weakened or dismissed altogether for such language.
On the other end of the spectrum are encyclopaedia entries, which include only incontrovertible facts. Speculation and opinion are unwelcome. Examples of this type of information might include stating the use of a medium format camera for the series, informing on the use of colour or black and white, the number of photographs included in the series, what period of time was spent on location. These kinds of details (the who, what, where, when and why) are relevant from a journalistic perspective, though, if used to excess, will also strip away any sense of passion or personality that you may wish to communicate.
Where you’d like to place your writing on that spectrum depends on your audience. Biographies should be more encyclopaedic, newsletters might be more hype-orientated, and project statements fall somewhere in between. If you find what you’ve written is too flowery and subjective, try injecting more facts into it. If it’s coming across as too factual and dry, try adding more description, insight into your motivations, or appeals to emotion.
What to include, what to exclude
The information to include in your writing will depend, once again, on the intended audience of your writing. If you find that you’re not even sure where to get started, here are some questions to guide you:
- What is the fundamental idea behind the project? What ties the images together into a cohesive body of work?
- Is any background information needed for the viewer to understand the people or places included in the series? Who or what are we looking at?
- What drew you to this idea? Why this idea and not any other? Why are you the best person to make this body of work?
- What was your working process? Are you using a special format of materials, or a noteworthy photographic process?
- How long did you spend working on the project? How many images have you made? Is it still on-going or completed?
- How do you want the series to be understood – as an art project? As a documentation? As something more commercial like fashion or an editorial?
- Is there a way that you can convey the tone of the imagery with the tone of the words?
You might find your text best served by leaving out the following details:
- Don’t try to present an analysis of your own work, for example making statements about what it means about photography in general or what it might mean to other people who view it – offer a set-up, but trust your viewer to draw their own conclusions. If your series has done its job, the message will be understood.
- Don’t explain how much photography means to you – this should be evident in the work itself.
- There are many words and expressions so over-used in photography that they’re fundamentally meaningless. 'Dream-like', for example, or describing that you like to 'play with light'. Try to replace these vague and common notions with more exact descriptions and unique perspectives.
- Don’t use your text to try to solve all the problems that you couldn’t solve in the photographs themselves. This includes raising questions in your description that don’t accurately reflect the questions raised by the series itself. It’s valuable if your work raises questions and encourages dialogue, but it should be a focused dialogue – and it’s not a good sign if you have to tell viewers which questions they are meant to be asking. Read through your text, considering the number of questions or points that you raise, and try to focus them towards one main idea.
Evaluating your text
Does it connect?
It frequently happens that there is a disconnect between what an artist says is in a series and what is actually present in the images. For instance, in the earlier example about drug-addicted Jane Doe and Reggie, I might write that I want viewers to feel sympathy for the subjects, but the series might portray them quite negatively, actually hurting the viewer’s ability to sympathize with them. The text doesn’t have the capacity to re-write what the viewer can see in the image, so it will come across as simply contradictory: the photographer doesn’t know or have control over the message she’s portraying.
This can happen for many reasons: it may be a side effect of being too close to the work to properly understand what’s being communicated to others who are seeing it for the first time, it may be the artist’s attempt to elevate the meaning of the work by adding an intellectual or poetic description, or, for example, simply a matter of the photographer not being skilled enough with words to make a clear statement. With enough feedback from others, however, this problem should be resolved. It’s incredibly important to show the work and the words to others and ask for their thoughts with an open mind. If you receive feedback that the two just don’t connect or seem misaligned, it is a good sign that you need to rework your writing to match the photographs, or possibly that you need to continue working on the project to properly accomplish the ambitions laid out in your writing!
Is the language clear? Is the tone appropriate?
This is particularly relevant for photographers trying to write in a language that is not their native tongue. Even if you feel confident enough to do your own writing, you will want to find an editor to proofread it, not just for spelling errors, which may or may not bother anybody, but to be certain that your meaning is clear. A native reader will additionally be able to pick up on words that are anachronistic, have double-meanings, or come across as patronizing or inappropriate – things which might be grammatically correct, but will affect the effectiveness of your message.
Are your poetics working?
Some artists choose to write about their work in a deeply poetic or creative format. This can work well, adding emotion and mystery to your work, or it can fall completely flat, making the entire work incomprehensible or at worst causing your audience to turn away in disinterest. Poetry is a medium all by itself, incredibly difficult to master. Unless you find support that your meaning is clear (even if your intended meaning is ‘mysterious’), it may be better to avoid this, or at least balance it with some straight-forward text. Keep in mind that most people do not read (or even appreciate) poetry, so you’re asking a lot of your audience to interpret an additional layer and you risk locking them out. Be sure to test that the meaning of your writing is coming across by getting feedback… and, that means more than just asking your readers if they “get it”, but probing them about the message.
Are you describing your work, or reporting?
In work that’s documentary in nature, statements about the project can easily become a report or an encyclopaedic entry about a location or a topic. Perhaps you are writing a report, whether a journalistic reportage or an academic paper, and if that’s the case, this section doesn’t apply to you, but otherwise, you should focus more on the work itself than the dry facts. If background information is important to understanding the context for your work, it’s good to include this, but it’s your task to limit and focus the information to its most relevant parts. What is the relationship between the facts and the images that you’re portraying? Why are you engaged with the topic? What information (visually or in text) are you offering that’s new, and what is known in general that is only for background? Consider also making the most important information easy to digest as an introduction or summary, with any deeper knowledge included later, or as a reference for those who are interested to learn more.
Are you making it too complicated?
Keep it simple. If you’re explaining, and then explaining again in another way, and explaining some more – you’re probably doing it wrong. Try experimenting with leaving text out to see if the message is still communicated. Effective text is simple and straightforward, pared down to its most basic form, even when being poetic.
Writing may seem like a daunting task, and while it’s true that a good piece of text requires skill and thought, consider that it’s also a critical part of the presentation of your work. Don’t short-cut or minimize your efforts. Alternatively, if the task strikes you as too burdensome, you can also elect to outsource the responsibility to a writer or editor, or even work together in a collaboration. Just remember that, while you may find pleasure from creating only visual media, if it's meant for public consumption, your work will be written about. All the better if you can have the first word.