Do I Really Need to Explain My Photography?

There is a trend growing in the photography world. The trend is to accompany photographs with explanatory text. I am not convinced this is a good thing. What do you think?

For a long time, I was a huge believer in the idea that an image must, for better or for worse, stand on its own two feet. No explanation needed. If one felt obligated to "explain" their image, I was inclined to feel as though the photograph was lacking in some way — something required compensation and, more often than not, that compensation came in the form of text. I have seen more and more of this from publishers big and small - photography monographs with just as many words as images. The question remains: Do photographs need an explanation? As I said, for a long time I would have said no, they do not. But, I think, my opinion may be shifting. 

Everyone in the photography world, it seems, is flailing to stay afloat. The world is inundated with images. We see so many images in a day that it is nearly impossible for even the best photographers to stand apart from the crowd. In an effort to do so, more and more photographers are turning into wordsmiths. If I cannot win you over with a mere visual, allow me to "seal" the deal with a carefully worded textual accompaniment, kind of like adding a backup singer. Now, don't get me wrong, this kind of "artist statement" thing has been around for a long time. Yet, the intensity with which it is applied seems to have increased, exponentially, in the past year or two. Three new monographs come immediately to mind: Sally Davies' New Yorkers, Rebecca Norris Webb's Night Calls, and Taxi by Joesph Rodriguez. All three use text in different ways, but all three present in a way as if to say that words were, in fact, required. 

So, why do I feel some text may be valuable? Well, with all three of the above books, I hesitated in my reviews (I have formally reviewed all of the books for various media). I wanted to claim that the text was unneeded and, actually, detrimental. However, I could not easily make such a claim. In all three cases, the words grew on me. They did, indeed, add "something" to the mix that may have, actually, made the photographs stand out in a visually choked existence. In a kind of "experiment," I decided to write this piece, an essay of sorts, where I will attempt to "explain" a dozen of my more known photographs. You tell me, do the words, the explanations, add anything of value to your experience? Honestly, I want to know. So, Let's begin. 

This first image, titled "The Finger," is a photograph I captured after pursuing my subject for nearly two blocks. There was something about the man's bent shape that captured my attention. I followed. I made several images, but none of the photographs were wholly compelling. Then, at last, he shifted his hand to his back and raised that one lone finger. It was magic, I shot, quickly, and the image was made. I knew immediately that I had struck gold. 

The Finger (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

Next, we have a photograph that I "coaxed" into existence. I love Coney Island, as have so many photographers before me. The beach at Coney Island is a special place, unlike any other place I've ever been. It is a beach beyond its time — a rough and troubled place with hardened and "expired" people. This man was sunning himself, working on his very own leather hide, when I spotted his potential. His skin was like saddle leather. I knew I had to make his photograph. I walked up to him, hovering over him with my 28mm Ricoh GR in hand, and asked him for directions to the restroom. He stretched out to point the direction and "snap," I had my image. Immortalized in ones and zeros, this man's tanned hide was now my photograph. Was it moral? Does it matter? Do you care? Do you need or want this explanation, or would you have been better satisfied by the image alone? Ah, to be or not to be: that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to... add text or not to add text. 

Like Leather (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

Sometimes, the perfect photographic opportunity is an act of reflexes. This photograph, "The Twins," was made only because I was quick on the shutter and not intimidated by shooting children. I jumped, I shot. Had I not made this image when I did and tried to follow these people down the sidewalk, I would have almost surely initiated a conflict. Be brave, be bold, take the shot. 

Twins (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

I believe focus and other technical skills are overrated. Most world-famous images are out of focus, even if just slightly. The reason? Many good images were made by capitalizing on the moment, not by stopping to perfect settings. Impulse, reaction, action! The subject matter, at least for me, is far more important than image quality or focus or exposure, etc. In this image, the dog, with his slightly crossed eyes, was way more valuable to me than my inability, at the moment, to try to make a technically perfect photograph. Do you know the number of perfect "umbrella" street photographs I've seen (and judged)? Use your energy to find content and forget about technical capability. A grainy, out-of-focus shot of someone standing off against a tank in communist China is always going to be more valuable and memorable than a technically perfect image of some woman holding an umbrella. Learn this lesson now, or throw your camera off your balcony and take up gardening. 

Dog and Walker (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

The frame does matter. What is out of the frame is just as important as what is in the frame. I don't care about the eyes. Everyone photographs the eyes. Look elsewhere for the soul. Try to see how someone manifests their personality aside from the eyeballs. The rims of the glasses, the t-shirt logo, the slight upward grin of the mouth — these are all more visually powerful than the eyes. Portrait photographers need eyes; the rest of us would do better without them. This photograph is called "The Grin." 

The Grin (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

I have made at least 100 (good) photos at Coney Island. The place is magical, but it is also a dump. Coney Island is a beach beyond its time. In this image, I aimed to capture the essence: a man relaxed and reclined, yet amid a pile of trash. The juxtaposition of the man (in his relaxed state) to the garbage and filth is a powerful statement. Coney Island is a wasteland as much as it is a playground. Capturing the man in an "upside-down" perspective adds to the image's ability to evoke unease and deprivation. 

Death by Sun (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

For me, street photography has always meant beach photography also. The two are synonymous. I mean, why shouldn't they be? In this street photograph, "Ripples and Waves," as I call it, we find a woman at rest on the beach. I made this photograph, specifically, because she had her face shielded. Remember, I do not like the eyes. But also, I wanted to keep the woman's identity hidden. My aim, while photographing on the streets and beaches, is not to "expose" people. I want to feature their unique characteristics; I want to celebrate their human elements and, at the same time, respect their individuality, their identity. For me, this is the ultimate street photograph; enough is depicted, and yet, enough is concealed. This is the kind of balance that is often hard to achieve. 

Ripples and Waves (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

Very early on in my practice as a street photographer, I learned that my signature would be all about getting in close and photographing elements of people's bodies. In an early conversation with Joel Meyerowitz, he mentioned to me the idea of the "human fragment," which not only became the title of my first monograph but would also become the name used to characterize my personal aesthetic. Indeed, the concept has evolved into allowing me to develop a unique style as a street photographer. This image, titled "The Board," really characterizes that approach to its fullest. 

The Board (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

"Hanky Panky," this next image, was the cover photograph of my book, The Human Fragment. The image captures a man in a suit, yet there is no real proof of the man, as only the suit is captured in the image. I loved that fact. It was, truth be told, a stroke of luck. I knew I was photographing a man in a suit. I knew I was aiming to frame off his head, but I did not realize that the resulting image would have no evidence of human flesh whatsoever. That was an added bonus. This is perhaps one of my most iconic street photographs. 

Hanky Panky (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

"Ice," this next image, was also one of the early images in an emerging aesthetic for me. The photograph frames off the head — a distinct feature I was still toying with at the time but that would, eventually, become a hallmark of my style. I have this image with the man's head as well. I have not shown that version of the image. It is not good. It is not a "Michael Sweet" photograph. Although I did not know it at the time, images with the heads intact would not be my thing. I have made many hundreds of photographs since with people's heads lopped off, but this image, titled "Ice," was one of the very first. It is a special photograph for me for this reason. 

Ice (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

This next photograph is another example of the gods being on my side. The woman on the right caught my attention. I aimed to capture her photograph. Just as I went to release the shutter, the woman on the left entered the frame. Either woman would have captured my interest and either woman would have made a compelling shot. Together, however, they combine to make a shot of the day, or year, or maybe even a lifetime. This is a prime example of a photographer's luck. Many street photographers would pretend that such an image was intentional in some bizarre effort to epitomize their talent, but, truth be told, these kinds of shots are 99% of the time pure luck. So it goes. This photograph is titled "Two Women". 

Two Women (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

Finally, "Window People", comes in as one of my very first "serious" street photographs — so early, in fact, that it is not shot with my iconic camera the Ricoh GRD IV, but rather with a Samsung camera of some kind. What is notable about this image is that I made it with a new perspective in mind. Rather than focusing on what everyone was photographing, I turned around and photographed behind me. The scene in front was some kind of police racket — a brutal protest — but I decided to photograph those who were watching the drama unfold. This altered perspective — this idea to turn around — has remained with me ever since. Sometimes, the best photographs are not made from anything more radical than a simple (and slight) shift in perspective. 

Window People (c) Michael Ernest Sweet

So, I ask again. Does the text add to the experience? Are words helpful or harmful when they accompany a photograph? I am still unsure, to be honest. I think the photographer should be unburdened to photograph without the need to feel an explanation is required. At the same time, I similarly feel a photographer should also be free to explain and expand, in words, if they feel that they want to do so. Put another way, I don't think either should be a "trend" per se, but rather merely an option. I must say, I do feel a little exposed by all of this. To explain or not to explain, that is (still) the question. What do you think?

Images used with permission.

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51 Comments

JR Martinez's picture

Maybe "explain" isn't the right word. If there is a purpose as to why someone takes a photograph, that is larger than the image itself, how could there ever be the expectation for that to be revealed otherwise? I for the most part appreciate the exposition, but thats because i care about stories and the truth more.

Even if I dont like a photo, or disagree with the 'how', *good* writing still makes for a richer experience of the photograph, and vice-a-versa, imo.

Rob Davis's picture

Almost always I see this and don’t care at all to read the description beyond date and location details. If it’s a series, it makes a little more sense to tell an overarching story. A story for each image, unless it’s truly extraordinary, is overkill.

This is something that got a lot worse after Humans of New York. Too many photographers are better writers than photographers.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Interesting point you make about photographers turned writers. I really do think it is a grasp in the air to try and get noticed. I tend to agree with you, though, photography should stand on its own, for better or worse.

Ed Wojtaszek's picture

I try to capture street images that tell a story, but I find that many gallery visitors are not getting it. In my coming show I plan to have titles and two or three sentences that describe what I see in the image. We will see what kind of reaction I get. As a photographer, I like your narratives, but they lean toward technique, which may not be suitable for a someone trying to appreciate a work of art. By the way, I love the images that you shared.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks, Ed. Best of luck with the show!

Fristen Lasten's picture

I am a visual person. I don't need the words.

Pan daBear's picture

Then why did you write this?

Frank Kinser's picture

Only if a photograph's context can't be understood visually, should contextual information be provided. Technical details mean nothing.

sam dasso's picture

Picture is worth 1000 words. If picture need additional words to explain it, then picture is worthless.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Good point, Sam. Although very declarative.

Kirk Darling's picture

In "other words," if the 1000 words of the picture don't tell enough of the story for the viewer to understand it, another 100 words probably won't finish it.

James Heaslip's picture

LOVE this!! We're all image makers. My words are in the image. Images speak for themselves.

Nick Rains's picture

Some images need words, some don't. Up to the artist.

However, some pics are hugely misleading without context - Nick Ut's photo from Vietnam springs to mind. Without knowing the circumstances of this image it's all too easy to misinterpret it. What you think is going on is probably wrong.

This makes it all too easy for images to be presented in a deliberately misleading context by bad faith actors (The Media). Simple parallax or perspective can give people a relationship they did not have when viewed from another angle. Newspapers excel at this - case in point, packed beaches during COVID restrictions taken with a long lens to compress perspective. Dishonest IMO.

Words can help - but maybe 1000 is too many!

Christopher Eaton's picture

As with many (most) things, there is no absolute answer to this. As a fine art landscape photographer with a background in public lands as well, I have always included a short bit of text with every photographic print I sell. It usually does not "describe" the photo, but instead it may be natural history about the geology or about the trees or the wildlife, or it may be a short story about the experience taking the photograph. What I have found is that most of my customers find additional value and connection through it.

Pillar Rudy-Culbreath's picture

A photo is worth a thousand words, I myself, don't think all photos need to be explained. I understand, having a title to some, but how I see it is, it's art, a person looks at a photo the same way they look at a drawing or a painting. To visualize, and take all in, and see another's perspective of the art. We all see a painting differently, such as we all see a photograph differently also. Putting an explanation to the "photo" or piece of "art", draws away from one's own, experience on how they view it, or why the person decided to take such a picture.

Sourov Deb's picture

For, I don't want you to explain your techniques. Because, they are subject to change.
But I would love to hear your story.
😊

Michael L. McCray's picture

Depends on the purpose, when I use to shoot people I hated to even title my work. I hated to write and it has cost me. Now I feel the subject is entitled to more than my artistic ego. A great deal of my personal work revolves around social issues and I have learned that too often a great picture can create great lies. Adding the context is important if you are trying to say something other than look at me.

Toby Seb's picture

Great photos speak for themselves. I find the text with photos are a bit prententious, it seems to come from the gallery world and, we know how some of those people are. Also a lot of Photo comptetitions demand text with the photos for entry.

I prefer just take great photos. It is after all a visual media.

Love the finger photo. Great work !

Lee Christiansen's picture

I think explanations about our photographs can be very useful.

Not only do I want the viewer to draw their own conclusions about an image, but I often also want them to know what I was thinking or what I saw. And if there is an interesting backstory, all the better.

Whilst a picture may indeed be worth a 1000 words, there's nothing to say that one picture = one story. If a pic is interesting enough, there may be several points of view and I'd like the viewer to think of all of them.

And of course, sometimes a viewer will miss those little things that are right under their noses - and I'd hate them to miss out on enjoying those as well.

Malcolm Wright's picture

It's possibly a step further than the adage a photograph doesn't become a picture until it is named.
There may also be the temptation to write too much, which could destroy the thought processes, involved in its appreciation.

Ken Hunt's picture

If a photo needs an explanation to make it a good photo, then it is not a good photo.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I think this is the conclusion I have reached also. But even here on FStoppers, they tell you to add text to your photo submissions as it will "help get your work selected for the featured photos section". I think compelling photographers to submit text with their images is going too far. It's a trend that needs to be reversed.

Nick Rains's picture

I disagree. An apparently straightforward or even banal photo can be suddenly become amazing when you find out the context. Conversely I feel cheated by some at-first-glance good photos when I find that they have been cynically staged but passed off as 'real'.

Context is critical, and sometimes that needs to be stated. It's nice when a photo can stand fully on its own but it's not a 'higher' level of photography, just different.

Having said that, I am not a fan of post-modern artwank claptrap - that's a situation where the words frequently spoil the image!

Josh Rose's picture

I think if you’re perhaps at a John Baldessari level, text becomes part of the experience of the image. Otherwise, I fear the image will pull forward indelibly through time and the words will fade.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Good point, Josh. You now make me think of Duane Michals. Words really do seem to be so important to much of his work.

Mike Dochterman's picture

well.. w/o knowing the backstory, the Tiananmen Square Tank Man photo is just a shopper checking out tanks at a tank show

Gregory Schmitt's picture

Photojournalism almost always needs explaining.

Gregory Schmitt's picture

Words tend to be needed more by the left-brained photographers and artists than the right-brained, who tend to be more intuitive. I prefer not to be trying to explain what I have made, especially since I prefer digital abstracts. Why explain abstracts? One either gets them or one doesn't.

C Fisher's picture

I hate the trend of writing a Shakespeare play for every picture. A person in an abandoned building group I was in wrote a 5 paragraph artistic thesis on every farmhouse he posted, it got tedious and tiring to look at after a while. We get it, you think you're fancy and cultured but you're really just pretentious and off putting.

barry cash's picture

Michael
Nice article hard to come up with new topics from day to day, I believe that if my images please me and I love some of them then that's the end of the conversation. I don't care what others think...unless they're paying me and even then my work is my style. If I can't or don't get the best image I am not upset it happens a lot, I'll get a great image before I leave the location or end the shoot. Will it be ICONIC? Ive seen touted images from very well know photographers who photograph famous people the leave me unimpressed while others rave what do you say it's my feelings I get from what Im seeing.

To take 1/250 sec from a days shoot in the street and make one great image is really good or maybe unbelievable best advice I ever got was keep your finger on the shutter for at least a few frames longer because the second image is usually the best one.

I think todays images blend together mostly with the same look, same color grading, same lighting, same angles, same expressions and same framing boring is a word to describe what I seeing. Today the images sell tomorrow another style will be vogue.

T Jacobs's picture

A worse trend is manufactured outrage over a nonexistent "problem" for the sake of "content."

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Who's outraged? lol

JR Martinez's picture

lol, though I dont really agree that this article is a reach for content, ironically his trolling attempt does bring up an interesting topic that i wonder about (unrelated to this article obviously).

If content creators of all kinds were to really be honest with themselves, how healthy vs important is it in their experience to be posting\making as much as possible? No doubt that there is a saturation in some ways of videos out there, "for the sake of content", so it is a valid question.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I was just curious as to what he perceived to be outrage. For the record, I do not accept any payments from FStoppers. I write content as a hobby, nothing more. It is just an opportunity for me to explore topics and ideas. I'm sorry if some feel it is all more nefarious than that, as it's really not. But I guess the nature of this business is to attract some negativity in the comments.

JR Martinez's picture

Yes and I appreciate that you and other people do create and write to explore things out of genuine interest, passion, etc., my entire experience as a hobbyist photographer is that. I definitely did not intend to agree with the original comment.

It just happened to be a question and tangential topic that i think about, as it applies to content creators generally (not you and this article IMO). Even in my own pursuit of photography, it feels disillusioning\discouraging sometimes that part of the value and success is hinged so heavily on how well and often you can make videos about that thing you do (as one example). thats all :)

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Sure, I can understand that ... for me, I am often frustrated by the content generators that just "republish" the same old crap they find elsewhere on the net. Then again, coming up with fresh takes on new topics might sound easy but believe me, it is not!

Michelle Maani's picture

Journalism, YES. Art? Not necessary. Explain only if you wish to do so. One reason I didn't like Jay Leno as a comedian is that he always explained his jokes.

Owain Shaw's picture

In principle, I agree with the idea that a good photograph should be a good photograph without textual accompaniment. This is especially true if the photograph is from a genre centred on artistic expression - landscape, portraiture, street photography. In these cases, a minimum of text (location/subject's name and year) is probably more than sufficient and any further explanation seems unnecessary.

However, when it comes to things like Documentary photography, context can be very important - perhaps not for every image but for the overall situation in which the photographs were made. By 'Documentary photogaphy' I'm referring to work like that of Salgado in Workers or Migrations, W. Eugene Smith's work or other examples of the Photo Essay, not other types of work to which the term is now often applied. Context such as the historical, social, cultural and economic background can be really important and inform us when looking at Documentary work.

This type of contextual information is also very different from the vague and vacuuous artist statement, of which I'm certainly not a fan - see: https://artybollocks.com/ for examples. Often, in successful documentary work, this text is not written by the photographer at all but by another figure with expertise or commentary on the issue represented. This text is not (normally) about the photographer, or the photographs themselves, but about the subject or story, and does provide things which cannot be communicated through photographs alone which freeze a moment in time but cannot be expected to inform the viewer of the 25 (or however many) years leading up to when the photograph was taken.

I think the problem lies in universal statements. Do all photographs need textual accompaniment? No. Should no photograph be accompanied by text? Also no. Is text always helpful? No. Is it never helpful? Also no.

Kyriacos Sakkas's picture

I think that the much more common and accepted practice of titling an image, and displaying that title with it, is a clear indication that text can augment an image, if it is the right text. The text does not even need to directly relate to the photograph, and at least for me the mechanical details you provide for your images here is not really the right text, I might even say it takes something away from the photos.
More generally, I would have preferred if the photo preceded the text. In the books listed even when the text is to the left, the visual impact of the photo would normally cause us to look at the image first (even if not consciously), and then read the text to enlighten our opinion of it.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Perhaps you only read the comments and not the article itself. I do not mention any mechanical or technical details.

David Vivian's picture

Like anything, a caption or narration can add, as well as detract. I do sometimes like that an artist adds some context for me to reset my gaze, or establish that unique moment or intent of the creator. I do believe some of us strive to legitimize the caption or 'tombstone' under our work to elevate it to some exhibit-level of worthiness. That may be overkill.

Philip Krayna's picture

I have found that pretty much no one reads my comments in Instagram, partly because the interface cuts off after the first few words, partly due to attention span. But I do often provide a simple title to give context, for example this shot was of blood drag marks (a dead animal or body?) on the sidewalk. Without some basic info it is mysterious but has little meaning.

Hope you will follow me and read what I write about my photos :)
@dyslexsyk

Jan Holler's picture

I like it. But for my part, I like not knowing what it is. It makes me look closer, makes me guess, makes me stay on the photo. And if it's reasonably well done, I enjoy it. E.g. your image could easily be a tar track, maybe a stumbling street worker spilled it?

Jan Holler's picture

Do not influence the viewers imagination!

That is what I think is a good reason to not add text to a photograph. I find it very interesting: the different views of the different people. What they see and not necessarily what I think they should see.

Edit: I forgot to say: Your photos are great! (With or without text).

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks, Jan.

Geoffrey Clowes's picture

Photographs are like meals, some are good and some not so good. Text accompanying a photograph is like the glass of port after the meal, not needed and not improving the meal but still nice to have.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Well put, Geoffrey.

Stacy Kaat's picture

The stories add a personal touch to your photographs and helped me get a feeling about who you are as a photographer. I enjoyed this very much. Thank you for sharing!

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks, Stacy. I appreciate the positive comment.

Gabriel Denison's picture

I lean towards the description of the photograph is in the title. How we capture the image is a different story. I believe the art of the photograph is a cerebral exercise, existing between the mind of the photographer and the mind of the viewer, with the camera as the accessing medium. Striving for this emotional connection through the tools of the camera makes us better photographers.
But, I always enjoy a good story, as well.

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