John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Image Descriptions

When showing a photo to people, we often find ourselves having to decide whether we want to say anything about it, either before they see it or while they look at it. Should we explain it in some way, or offer some kind a description to help the person understand what we intended?

This decision confronts almost everyone who belongs to an online photo-sharing group. The software in such groups often includes a feature for presenting a text description along with the photo, if one decides to use it. Whether or not photographers offer that accompanying text, and what text they provide, affects the impact the image has on its viewers. Some descriptions are short and pithy. Others are quite long and may even serve as stories or essays.

Photos without any accompanying descriptions encourage viewers to explore the image on their own without forcing any particular interpretation or explanation, particularly if the photo also has no title. It allows viewers to project themselves into the image, creating their own explanation and meaning.

People also might present their photography without any accompanying text as a way to maintain privacy and anonymity, especially when the image contains elements about one's life. As a type of compromise, the image reveals aspects of their identity, beliefs, and lifestyle, while the absence of text protects their confidentiality.

Most of the time, though, we want to say something about the shot. What we say may serve a variety of purposes:

A Life Narrative: We explain how the photo reveals something about our lives, perhaps some event, location, person, animal, or object. We may describe why it is meaningful or important to us, what it says about our personality, beliefs, and lifestyle, or how it indicates what we like and don't like. It's not unusual for the description to sound like a story. What led up to this scene? What happened next? In fact, our experiences with childhood storybooks probably motivates us to offer such images with an accompanying narration.

Technical Explanations: We feel we need to explain some technical aspect of the photo. Maybe there's something usual about it, or maybe we used a particular technique that we want to describe. If there was a problem in how we took or processed the shot, we might want to acknowledge that dilemma.

Clarification and Identification: If the shot is in some way ambiguous, we might offer clarification. Maybe something in the shot is dark or blurry. Maybe the viewer needs to know who the subject is, where the shot was taken, or its social context. Whatever the case, we offer the explanation in order to steer viewers onto the right track so they can appreciate the shot as we intended.

Conversation Starters: Some descriptions may serve the purpose of launching a discussion of some kind - about lifestyles, preferences, or beliefs - that may only be tangentially related to the image.

Commentary: Although it's not a common practice in face-to-face situations, people in online photo-sharing communities often use a photo as a springboard for a social, political, or philosophical statement. The photo might even be a "seeing is believing" reinforcement of the photographer's commentary.

Puzzlers and Jokes: The description presents the image as a puzzle or game that the viewer is challenged to tackle. For example, is there some hidden element, or an anomaly that requires explanation? The description might also set the stage for seeing the image as humor.

Artistic Expression: Some people, especially in online photo-sharing communities, like to offer poems, lyrics, or quotes to accompany the image. Artistic self-expression often motivates them. They might provide dialogue as a way to give a voice to the people, animals, or even objects in the image - not unlike the script that would accompany a scene from a movie.

Although images, in and of themselves, can have a powerful impact on people, it is the combination of the image with a description that launches the potential for a relationship between photographers and their visitors. This is especially true in online photo-sharing groups. Photographers become more real as people via the accompanying text they offer. They use text to give visitors more information to work with when commenting on images. Text invites them to spend more time considering the image and to show more commitment in understanding it and the photographer. For this reason, some photographers feel disconnected and misunderstood when visitors obviously have paid little or no attention to the description, as when a viewer offers the comment "Beautiful Sunset!" on an image that the photographer described as a sunrise. The viewers' neglect in understanding the image, and the photographer, might even come across as callous or toxic when they offer comments indicating that they obviously overlooked the photographer's personal self-disclosures in the text descriptions.
If someone presents a shot of their dog, with a description about mourning the pet's death, then a viewer's comment "You've got such a cute dog!" is not going to sit well with the photographer.

If you liked this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also enjoy these:

Visualizing and Verbalizing
Commenting on Photos
Online Photo-sharing Communities

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche