In this project we are going to explore the intersections of photography and alphabetic text, specifically through the use of the caption. In 1972, Walter Benjamin observed that “the caption [will become] the most important part of the shot” (qtd in Evans & Hall, 1999, p. 7)—an observation that both challenges the photograph’s ability to convey meaning on its own and reinforces the idea that modes of communication are becoming inextricably linked. Captions—in the form of advertisement tag lines, descriptions under newspaper photographs, explanations that accompany museum pieces, Facebook photo comments, Flickr tags, and so on—shape how a photograph is read. Or, as Barthes (1964) has observed: captions “help [one] to choose the correct level of perception, permits [one] to focus not simply [their] gaze but also [their] understanding” (qtd in Evans & Hall, 1999, p. 37).
We are going to engage in the rhetorical practice of shaping gazes and understanding by completing:
- A photo essay of 8 – 10 photographs that uses images and captions in a sequence to convey some sort of meaning, argument, observation, and so on.
- These photos can be taken with any kind of camera (digital, cell phone, film) as long as you are able to get digital copies of the images.
- The photos should be new to this project and can be of any subject matter, but I’d like you to think about this project as a way to make some sort of comment about contemporary society, life in general, or something else meaningful.
- The captions can be used in a variety of ways: to enhance the meaning of the photos; overtly structure how viewers and think about the photos; create a dramatic story through the sequence of photos; contextualize the photos culturally and historically; and so on.
- The captions can be as long or as short as you think necessary. They can be traditional captions appearing under the image or they can be added to the image itself using a photo editor, such as Photoshop or the free Pixlr or Picnik.
- Think outside the box and try to create a compelling essay in which you use these modes of communication in new ways to convey some sort of message and, perhaps, try to employ some of the semiotic practices described by Hall.
- A Pictory, based on those published in the online magazine Pictory, using the best image from your photo essay.
- An interpretive statement in which you contextualize and discuss your rhetorical practices and decisions when composing the photo essay.
The photo essay and Pictory will be published on the course Flickr page. In Flickr, each student will
- create a Photo Set for their photo essay
- title and describe the photo set
- order the images
- title each image
- add a caption for each image (in Flickr, captions are added in the Description field)
- create a slide show of your photoset so you can see how it will appear in a sequence to those who read it
- choose the best image from your photo essay, add it to the Pictory photo set, and add an extended caption (it should not be the same one as the one that accompanies the photo in your photo essay)
Each student will create three blog posts to showcase the work completed in this project:
- A post that contains only an embedded slideshow of your photo essay
- A post that contains only your Pictory
- A post that contextualizes your photo essay, discusses your captions and choices for ordering the photos, and describes what you hoped to achieve with the essay. Embed the slideshow.
March 4: Photos due in class in digital form
March 11: Final Project due on blog by class time
- A Home 8,000 Miles Away by Alan Chin
- Behind the Scenes: Child’s-Eye View of Haiti by Candice Chan
- The Ghosts of Armenia by Celina Fang
- From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried by Carrie Mae Weems
Photo Essay Revision
This is a rarity for me. That is, requiring students to revise their work after the final due date. But, after reading your photo essays and weighing the options, I felt that it would be best if I asked you to think more critically and in more nuanced ways about your images and the captions that you use. To avoid cliche and tautological representations and descriptions. To look at your photos from a new perspective. To challenge yourself to approach a subject in a way less familiar to you. To think specifically about how semiotic, multimodal, and photographic theories are informing the choices that you make. Most of the projects that have been completed don’t do this.
Perhaps I should have been more heavy-handed in my objectives, in how we discussed the essay in class. Perhaps not. Either way, I am giving you the opportunity to re-approach the assignment so that it avoids:
- recapitulating overstated and obvious claims
- making causal claims that need further evidence to support it
- bland, inconsistent, or surface-level captions containing typos and poor punctuation
and so that it succeeds by:
- considering the meaning of the individual photos and complete photo essay in terms of theories on semiotics and multimodality
- consciously employing certain semiotic, multimodal, and photographic theories when choosing the images, their order, and the captions
- looking at the images, their subject(s), and their meanings in new, unique ways that challenge, upend, or resituate cliche and dominant cultural narratives
- framing the discussion of the photo essay with theories in semiotics, multimodality, and photography
- having consistently worded and toned captions that are devoid of typos
The extent of your revision will depend on the current shape of your project. Some might need to start again from scratch; others might need to update their captions. All of you will need to rewrite the interpretive essay grounding the discussion in theories on semiotics, multimodality, and photography. What does your photo essay mean as a text itself and how is that meaning made? What, for example, are the signs and signifiers? The indexes? The perspectives and points of view? The power relations, either implied or asserted? What are the socio-political, -historical, -cognitive, and/or -economic forces that help structure their meaning(s)? How is the caption functioning at the level of text and constraining artifact?
Going through this process will help you start thinking in the new, different, expansive, and theoretically grounded ways that will be necessary as we move to the next two projects.
Regardless of the extent of your revision, I would like you to create a new Set on Flickr so that I am able to compare the first and revised versions. You will need to upload new versions of your photos so that they can be given new captions. Same for the Pictories, which should have a set called Pictories Revised. Complete the blog posts as you did for the version due March 11.
Due date: Wed, March 24, by class time