And I have heard, and also hold to, the notion that a viewer should be allowed to bring their own interpretations to a photograph: the photo tells the story, but it's up to the viewer to decide what that story is. However, I think words are important too, and they can be used to add to the story telling ability of photographs, particularly street photographs. And, cutting to the point of today's post, words can clarify the message or story a photo is trying to tell.
Have a good look at this photograph which is a moment I shared in Melbourne Australia a few years ago. Think about what story it is telling you (I won't include the title underneath like I usually do; I don't want to give it all away just yet!)
When I composed this scene in the camera viewfinder, this guy wasn't drinking: he was just sitting there waiting, I presumed, for the train. Then, just as I was about to press the shutter button, he took a swig from the bottle. Oh well, I thought, it’s not the moment I had in mind but it is a moment shared. Still, I decided then it’s not one I will share any further: I don't do pictures of people drinking (as in alcohol) on the street (or even at train stations). Still, trying to stick to my resolution to not chimp (ie check the photo on the screen of the camera), I didn't worry about checking or deleting it and just shrugged and walked on.
Then at home when I uploaded the files to my laptop and zoomed in, I saw that in fact it is a lemonade bottle he is drinking from. Not a train station, platform sitting alcoholic after all. But, what to do? I liked the image. I wanted to edit it and share it, but it depicts a man drinking and that could be seen as a man drinking alcohol in a public space. A title! As I've said, I title all my photos anyway, but in this case the title needed to say a little more; it needed to clarify what this photo is not.
So, the title of this image is The Not So Secret Lemonade Drinker. Clever don't you think? Well, maybe not. But for me it clears up a key point of potential confusion (not every viewer will take the time to zoom in and check the bottle). Sure, I know I might have ruined part of the story for some. On the other hand there's still plenty there for a viewer's imagination to play with in order to come up with the story (or stories) this photograph is wanting to tell.
Of course a photo should speak for itself. Of course a picture is or can be worth many words. But, you know, if a picture really is worth a thousand (or even 84.1) words, then what harm can there be in adding a few more carefully chosen, thoughtful words that might actually help the photo speak for itself in a more powerful and true way?