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Dear Photographer: Please shut up

Making the case for subject voice in narrative photography captions.

CW: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this article contains names and images of people who may have passed away.

Close-up of an older indigenous woman’s hand is held out, palm uppermost. The photographed hand has been painted over with patterns of tiny white and yellow dots.
Look. Restricted with Ruth Nungarrayi Spencer, Patrick Waterhouse and the artists of the Warlukurlangu Art Centre. Reproduced with the permission of P Waterhouse

Nancy Newhall’s essay ‘The caption’ (1952) sees her generation of narrative photographers on the brink of a new world: the rise of the wordless book of photographs after centuries of imageless books of words. Writing at a time when the word ‘caption’ had no dictionary definition in the context of photography, she introduces the additive caption as ‘… the newest form, risen into prominence to answer a new need. It does not state or narrate some aspect of the photograph; it leaps over facts and adds a new dimension. It combines its own connotations with those in the photograph to produce a new image in the mind of the spectator… a new language of images is apparently evolving, and with it a new use of words.’

And anyone who’s ventured more than a toe into the ‘memeiverse’ will know how different words can add a new dimension to an image.

A photobook is now something within the means of all of us to produce. has a number of articles on both the social impact and praxis of photobooks as they increase in popularity. The best photobooks employ the additive caption with precision by the photographer as presenter of the story; less frequent but no less appealing are collaborations between wordsmith and image-smith.

But who owns the narrative when the subject is an individual, or group of individuals, and the photographer is an outsider?

That ‘power controls narrative’ can no longer be denied by even a casual engagement with news, social media or history. Nottingham University warns, in their Holocaust exhibition, that ‘Captions alone cannot counteract the powerful emotive appeal of images, which convey seemingly ‘authentic’ glimpses of the past, but which were, for the most part, taken by propaganda photographers and implicated individuals, and sometimes explicitly dedicated to ‘the historians of the future’’.

Black and white photograph. A clearing in tropical scrub. A white man wearing khaki uniform is seated in a folding chair; his hair is being cut by an aboriginal man in a loincloth.
Cadet patrol officer, Ted Evans, receives haircut from Aboriginal barber. Image credit: T Evans

But we might still be getting it wrong despite the best of intentions. My uncle Ted Evans was one of the first Federal Government patrol officers in the Northern Territory from 1946 onwards; there are 798 of his photographs in the NT Territory Stories Archives — several held behind cultural sensitivity firewalls warning about historical attitudes— and numerous documents on Trove. Ted was demonstrably close to, and supportive of the rights of, those he was ‘patrolling’, and his funeral in 1991 was attended by tribal elders. However, while his official reports name the individuals he worked with and for, not one indigenous person is named in the captions of photographs of individuals. This might be cultural sensitivity, or unconscious oversight … we just don’t know. What is obvious however, is that at no time do the individuals have their own voice, regardless of his esteem. The image here is captioned Cadet patrol officer, Ted Evans, receives haircut from Aboriginal barber. Ted would have known much about this man, his name and his story, but we hear none of it.

The conquerors’ ownership of the history of indigenous and minority groups goes back to biblical times. And photography cannot avoid history, for ‘Photography is always a response to … culture and social construction, and therefore political in nature. Any photography that fails to embrace the social and cultural context [has] little or nothing to say.’

Black and white photograph. A woman in profile, standing in a field; her dress is rough and has holes worn in it. She holds one hand to her forehead, the other rests on her shoulder. She’s half-smiling but looking downward.
Woman of the High Plains. “If you die, you’re dead — that’s all” Texas Panhandle 1938. Image credit: Dorothea Lange.

Working for the US Survey Department, Dorothea Lange produced an iconic body of work on the 1930s share-croppers of the USA Dustbowl. The ground-breaking step Lange took was to use the subjects’ own words as additive caption:

She listened to the actual words of the people she was photographing and put their speech beside their faces.[ … ]A worried young sharecropper looks at you . . . “The land’s just fit fer to hold the world together.”[Newhall, ibid]

In The Story of James by Kalli Binos, one aspect of James’s story was his recovery from illness and surgery. Captioning with James’s own words brought us into the presence of the subject.

A man in his 30s or 40s and his girlfriend are standing at a car door, playing with a dog who’s sitting inside the car.
Image credit: K Binos (2021)

It is surely more legitimate, and more impactful to allow the subject to contribute to the narrative. Yet, still today we see that the ‘retrospectives’ and photobooks are frequently titled ‘In their own words’. Obviously the creator of the work presents the story they want to tell us, but it has been difficult to find any subject voice in these narratives. As I searched, I found myself thinking: Dear photographer, please shut up.

A beautiful approach to redressing the silencing of ‘own voice’ and the reduction of the subject to a specimen under study is explored in the book Restricted Images: Made With the Warlpiri of Central Australia. Patrick Waterhouse’s subjects directly interact with their own photograph after printing.

A desert scene, a small camp made from a tarpaulin over poles in the shade of a small tree. The images of the six figures in the photograph have been painted over with traditional indigenous art motifs and patterns, in bright colours.
Go to West Camp. Restricted with Sarah Napurrurla Leo, Selma Napanangka Tasman and Sabrina Nangala Robertson, Patrick Waterhouse and Waterhouse and the artists of the Warlukurlangu Art Centre. Reproduced with the permission of P Waterhouse

If the story is worth telling then allow the individual in. In Dorothea Lange’s own words:

“The words that come direct from the people are the greatest.…If you substitute one out of your own vocabulary, it disappears before your eyes.”

Two old overloaded farm vehicles amid saltbush in a desert location. The caption is a quote: ‘People just can’t make it back there, with drought, hailstorms, windstorms, duststorms, insects. People exist here and they can’t do
 that there. You can make it here if you sleep lots and eat little, but it’s pretty tough, there are so many people. They chase them out of one camp because they say it isn’t sanitary — there’s no running water — so people live out
 here in the brush like a den o’ dog
Image credit Dorothea Lange, reproduced via MIT Open Course Ware publications




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