Keep the “journalist” in “photojournalist” with solid reporting and quality captions

A student editor reached out to me with some thoughts on a recent post, so I offered her the chance to pick a topic for me and I promised I’d give it a shot. It didn’t take long for her to get back to me:

I think the next biggest issue I’ve been dealing with is photographers, and even reporters, being too scared to talk to people, or even too lazy. I had a photographer try to argue with me a few weeks ago about whether it was “important” to get people’s names in captions if the picture is of them. Which, duh, it is.

Duh, indeed.

Photojournalists often have a thankless job in a newsroom setting. They are told to find visually appealing moments at meetings and speeches, which is kind of like trying to find a nun at an AVN awards ceremony. They get “assignments” after other people have figured out what the news is supposed to be and then they have to somehow figure out how to grab images that reflect whatever a writer or editor thought the story should be. (Also, back in the day, they used to get stuck in a chemical dark room with limited ventilation. God alone knows what that stuff did to them. I tried to learn film developing once in one of these places and I felt high for about two days…)

As a way to not only deal with that, but also to reaffirm their place in the media ecosystem, the word “journalist” is built right into their titles. It used to be just “photographer,” (or in some cases, “picture box monkey”) which indicated the only purpose they had was to grab images. In other words, “Let’s leave the news stuff to the big kids, OK, there, pal?”

Journalism is baked into every bite of what these folks do. They need to tell stories, communicate effectively and help audience members understand why things matter. Part of that is in the images themselves, as the photogs grab slivers of time that convey action, reaction, emotion, depth and feel. A good image can give people a sense of place and time. However, it can’t do the job alone. This is why images almost always have captions and the captions really do make the difference in storytelling.

Consider this photo:

Interesting and engaging. You get facial expressions and actions. For a “dude at table” photo, it’s pretty solid. However, without a caption, you lack the ability to understand much about what’s going on. A standard two-sentence caption should work like this:

Sentence 1: Tell me what’s going on in the photo without being patently obvious and do it in present tense.

Sentence 2: Provide me with an explanation as to why what’s going on here matters to me with depth, background and other additional information.

Now, let’s see how a caption makes you feel about this photo:

All-Star Shortstop Bucky Johnson signs an autograph for a young fan prior to the presentation of his Most Valuable Player award. Johnson set American League records for homers, hits and runs last year as he helped the Cleveland Indians win their first World Series since 1948.

A nice heartwarming piece with some fun, some feel and an “awwww” moment.

However, that’s not even close to what’s going on in this photo. This is a court image of Scott Peterson at the defense table with his legal counsel. He’s in the process of being convicted of murdering his wife and dumping her body in the San Francisco Bay. He received the death penalty and has been on death row for more than 15 years.

Feel a little differently about it now?

The point is, the more information you include in a caption, the better the caption will be and the more helpful it will be in letting your photo tell the story.

When I had to write captions for photos on night desk,  I was really lucky to work with Joe Jackson, one of the best photojournalists I ever knew. Joe would not only gather a whole bunch of information for me to write the captions, but when he knew I was working on it, he would come over and tell me what he saw when he was shooting the frame and why he chose that image for publication. That helped me tell a better story in my writing and thus help his photo do a better job of communicating his intent.

With that in mind, consider the following tips for gathering information for captions:

  • Names: People who are identifiable in the image should be named. You also want to gather some additional information about who they are and why they are at the newsworthy event you are covering.
  • Actions: Find out what people are actually DOING and get specific. Two people laughing in a photo can be nice, but a caption that says they “share a laugh” is as pointless as a paraphrase that tells me “Smith had this to say:” If they’re laughing after listening to a comedy club act, that’s one thing. If they’re laughing at a murder victim’s vigil, that’s another thing. It’s the same thing when someone is on the phone in a photo (and those aren’t all that great as images, by the way): Find out who is on the other end of the line, what the conversation is and how things panned out.
  • Details: You are a journalist so get nosy. “Find out the name of the dog and the brand of the beer,” was the mantra of a former editor of mine, and that applies here as well. Find out as much as you can about the people in the images and what is going on. For example, is the person going to speak in favor of a labor agreement or against it at a big meeting? Is the person local or from out of town? Is the person at the county fair there to compete in some event or just eat his/her weight in funnel cakes? More depth is good.

In terms of how best to write these things, Kenneth Irby of Poynter put together a great list of “hot tips” for just such an occasion. Consider them words to live by.

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