Pictures Need Words
September 23rd, 2015 by David LaBelle
Words are important to understand scenes such as this one. The one-armed statue stands outside the Kent Roosevelt High School football stadium in Kent, Ohio. Without the plaque at the base of the statue, visitors would not know its significance. The plaque tells the story of quarterback-turned-placekicker Benny Cowgill’s heroic battle with bone cancer. He changed positions after losing his arm to the disease. Benny was diagnosed with the cancer at 14. He died 27 months later. Photo by David LaBelle

Words are important to understand scenes such as this one. The one-armed statue stands outside the Kent Roosevelt High School football stadium in Kent, Ohio. Without the plaque at the base of the statue, visitors would not know its significance. The plaque tells the story of quarterback-turned-placekicker Benny Cowgill’s heroic battle with bone cancer. He changed positions after losing his arm to the disease. Benny was diagnosed with the cancer at 14. He died 27 months later. Photo by David LaBelle

How many times have we heard that good pictures need no words?

While this may be true on occasion, few photographs can stand on their visual merit and communicate clearly without words.

Most photographs—even those with intrinsic and aesthetic value alone—are made stronger and more complete when they are teamed up with words. Furthermore, most photographs need words to give them context and help the viewer understand important information that may change the way we see the subject of a scene.

Generally speaking, words appeal more to the intellect, allowing us to work through difficult concepts and subtle situations, while images have greater instant success touching us emotionally.

Words provide the back story, which helps make the picture and story more personal. Without this, the image floats through time and space unable to find a place of rest and belonging.

Words also give life, greater meaning and deeper understanding to photographs. Even if it’s only a date or location scribbled on the back of a print, that information helps us connect to both a time and the subjects in the image.

Sometimes adding what a photographer was seeing or feeling when he or she made the picture, or quotes from those pictured, help personalize it.

Words also provide context, which helps our heads comprehend what our eyes and our hearts are seeing Context is about providing answers to those questions we ask when we view an image. The circumstances and conditions at the time the photograph was made enrich the experience, helping us to appreciate the image more—the where, when, why and how.

Acts, stories and especially photographs need context. It’s the words—the context—that make them whole, accurate, even truthful.

Presenting photographs without words to give the images context also can mislead the viewer or leave false impressions. Often, we need words to validate or dismiss first-glance impressions. Publishing pictures of raw emotion without providing words to give the expressions context
is irresponsible.

For me, photographs without words are incomplete, like bodies without spirits. Just as the spirit quickens the body, words give life and dimension to still photographs.

Separately, words and photographs each can have an effect, but the union of the two strengthens both.

daveDavid LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He grew up on a frog farm in rural California, roaming the creeks and hills with his coon dogs. Many of the lessons he learned during those magical boyhood years have been applied to photography and teaching the essence of this art form. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.