Do Captions Matter?
Do photographs need captions? "Rock and tree" photographers are fond of saying that pictures have to stand alone, on their own, without being shored up by words. I see their point, but I've never trusted the idea. The pictures I like best are pictures with significance, and often the significance simply must be explained: it isn't contained in the picture alone.
Consider the above, taken by Matt Houston for the Associated Press. It was taken on Dec. 21st, 2005, and shows a man named Greg Mallet-Prevost standing in front of part of his the house where his family has been living since the 1960s.
The significance of the picture is that the log cabin, now a minor extension of the house, was part of a large plantation once managed by a black slave named Josiah Henson, who lived here. Henson, through his autobiography, was the chief model for Harriett Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom.
So this is Uncle Tom's Cabin. Who wouldn't want to know that about this shot? How could anybody fully appreciate the picture without knowing it?
Incidentally, Josiah Henson hardly deserves the approbrium that has befallen the "Uncle Tom" epithet. He was a capable, literate, and honorable man who eventually escaped on the Underground Railroad to Canada, where he welcomed and sheltered other escaped slaves and wrote his biography. Incidentally, Henson's historic cabin has been purchased from the Mallet-Prevosts by Montgomery County, Maryland, and will be preserved as an historic site and tourist destination.
Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON
NOTE: The photograph shown here was originally properly captioned by the photographer. I'm not questioning or criticizing his captioning abilities; merely pointing out how important captions can be for many types of pictures. —Ed.