Outside the image

Captions. Credits. Geo. Metadata. There is a lot more to understanding a picture than the picture itself.

Megan Dawson
Dec 17, 2014 · 5 min read

In storytelling, visuals are the nervous system. From illustrations to photographic representation, the visual components of a narrative tell the story, command attention, reinforce hierarchy and important story elements, and enhance understanding. When strategically displayed, they have the power to entrance a viewer, drawing them into a narrative that might otherwise be dismissed.

If visuals are the nervous system of a story, the picture’s caption, credit-line, tags and other associated metadata could be thought of as the peripheral nerves. They are the layers of communication that strengthen the message.

In order to properly produce, store, gather and execute visuals, storytellers must properly utilize the information that describes the visual. This layer of information above the visual story supplements the visual and includes caption, credit, geo-tagging and metadata (data that describes other data).

From Peter Krogh, author of The DAM Book — Digital Asset Management for Photographers:

“The opportunity is to make use of all of the information swirling around a photo.”

Krogh is the recipient of the Individual Innovation Award from the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program and was named by Microsoft to be part of its Icons of Imaging Program designed to showcase professional photographers recognized around the world as leaders in digital imaging.

“The rich data that surrounds pictures is an essential part of understanding pictures and using them to communicate”

One easy way to understand this use class is that photographs are really helpful for personal memories.

“What did I do then? What did I look like back in college? What did my friends look like? People use photographs to enhance memories. Having information attached to the photo can allow you to find it.”

The most prominent piece of supplementary information for a visual is its caption. The caption should verify what the photograph is showing. It’s another layer of verification for the reader.

The caption can be a part of the story, according to Charles “Stretch” Ledford, a visual journalist who has filmed and photographed in 50 countries on five continents.

From Ledford, who teaches multimedia journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:

“If the reader is looking at a photograph, and they’re intrigued by it but they’re not sure what it is, it’s almost like that photograph is asking you a riddle… Then when you read the caption, it’s almost like the answer — like ‘Ohhh, of course!’ It provides resolution for the photograph.”

Captions also have an under-the-hood aspect in their supportive role beyond what viewers and readers see. Captions become metadata when search engines pick them up. Storytellers can use keywords in their caption to increase the likelihood that their pictures will show up in a Google search, for example.

“By writing a caption, that’s more metadata and more keywords… The more metadata you have, the more ways the consumer can find the image. The more ways they can find it, the more valuable it is. It has monetary payoff to do it because it allows your photographs to be indexed and found by more people.”

Like captions, credits are a multifaceted tool.

The “credit” associates name, photographer or source with an image and is important to search engine optimization. “If someone Googles ‘Stretch Ledford’… they’re gonna bring up a slew of photographs that have my name associated with them because of credit,” Ledford said. “It’s your stamp of ownership. Having the credit there, it’s your property.”

There’s also a marketing value in credits. “The more times you see the name Stretch Ledford or the name David Alan Harvey or whoever, it’s like you’re building a brand. You’re associating your name with your visual ability,” Ledford said.

The credit is important not just for the producer, but also for the viewer to understand what it is they are looking at, according to Krogh. “Is this a thing that an independent journalist did, or is this a thing a company did to help tell their story in a positive way? So photo credit is really important.”

One of the modern forms of metadata is found in geolocation, more commonly reffered to as “geo-tagging.” The default setting on many web-enabled devices, including cameras and smartphones, comes with what is known as Exif header data, which is basically a geo-location tag. Unless you turn it off, your camera is a personal GPS tracker of where you’ve been.

While geo-tagging can be useful for storytellers to creatively arrange their photographs and get exposure, one expert advises exercising caution when utilizing this tool.

From Paul Rosenzweig, an independent cyber-security and national security consultant who formerly worked for the Department of Homeland Security:

“I would recommend journalists disable geo-tracking at any time where they are trying to keep the nature of their activities confidential from governments or from other journalists… Don’t be going with geo-tracking to Deep Throat. That’s just not a good thing.”

Rosenzweig also cautions photographers about where they store their digital photos. “If they store the photos in the Cloud, which most of us do, they are as secure as Jennifer Lawrence’s,” he said.

His solution: encrypt before you upload. Encryption is the application of an algorithm, a mathematical technique, to scramble your data such that only a person with the pass phrase can unscramble it. “It’s a way of essentially creating a cyber safe that only you have the key to,” Rosenzweig said.

With all of the options available to enhance the visual through data, it can be intimidating to adopt these techniques. Krogh suggests keeping it simple.

“Photographers and people who have picture libraries should be attaching information that’s useful to them according to how they understand pictures.

“We are entering a world of gigantic opportunity, as photographs become physical daily communication between people.

“What systems can know about pictures and about the people who shoot them, about people who view them, and how people like them is offering a tremendous opportunity to create a visual record that’s connected in ways that transform the way we understand history and communications.”

Check out some of Northwestern University Knight Lab’s
free tools for journalists and digital storytellers:
StoryMapJS and SnapMap, as well as SoundCiteJS and TimelineJS.

Ideas: Journalism + Tech

Thoughts on the intersection of journalism and technology…

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