The relationship between word and image in my own photographic practice.
Fig 1: Elden 1991. Nevermind.
“Okay, throw the baby in the pool now.”
Underwater photographer Kirk Weddle uttered those words as Spencer Elden, then only 4-months-old was, tossed into a pool (Romero 2016), and photographed to be forever immortalized on Nirvana’s multi-platinum album, Nevermind.
The only two words to accompany this image, Nirvana and Nevermind, leech off the visuals of the baby happily swimming toward money, seemingly chasing it straight from birth, and the suggestion to ignore the image altogether as if to say, “Move along, nothing to see here.”
There is no doubt that the two pieces of text on this album cover quicken its message to the viewer. This album and the messages it contains have dramatically influenced the artistic endeavors in my life, and I often reflect on it when captioning my own images.
The relationship between word and image is about as complicated as Yoko Ono was to The Beatles. As Roland Barthes stated in his book Image, Music, Text, “...text constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the [photographic] image, to ‘quicken’ it with one or more second-order signifieds.” (BARTHES, 1977: 25)
I deeply relate to Barthe’s accurate description of text’s relationship to an image as the influence of text on my photographic practice is particularly relevant to this topic. As a working documentary photojournalist, I am required to caption each of my photos for print. Each agency or organization that I’ve worked with maintains their own captioning standards. Some require a narrative description of the image with date, time, and location, while others require a more thematic description. Regardless of the required captioning style, I always struggle with text of any kind accompanying an image. It is my personal belief that when text coexists with an image it actually removes the story that image is meant to convey. I believe it's not my job to explain to the viewer what they are seeing, and that captioning should be kept to a minimum. Much like art, the viewer can come to their own conclusions about the image without any help from the artist describing it to them.
However, documentary photojournalism isn’t meant to stand alone as an art form, but more as news-worthy photography. That aspect alone requires descriptive text to accompany the image. So, I’m a bit at odds with my own relationship between image and text. Social media has only exacerbated my feelings in this regard. In our modern society it is an extraordinary occurrence when an image does not find its way to a social media platform, and it is on such platforms where images are splashed with text and emojis by a global audience that either validate or invalidate the image and the story it is conveying. We’ve become comfortable with training our brains to swipe left, right, and click, click, click as we seek instant gratification from complete strangers online. By doing this, we actively ignore the image in front of us and the story it is sharing. Instead, we hijack the image for our own selfish gains.
Fig 2: Chacon 2022. Conform, Like, & Subscribe.
These social media actions have brought me to my current photographic practice of getting ahead of such hijacking and pre-judging my own images with a digital graffiti of social media comments, likes, and emojis. Dong this is my attempt to encourage the viewer to focus and be thoughtful. Instead of blindly accepting the messages, and imagery put before us, we should be questioning the so-called authorities and the messaging they’re feeding us. Paying attention to the image in this way will force us to be more intellectually honest and emotionally truthful, and simply ask, “Why?”
The Why of it is where we should start. Therefore, I’ve decided to focus my Illustrated Research Project Proposal for this MA progam on the parasitic effects of text on images as it relates to our own parasitic effect on the planet. I’ll be shooting a series of images around the ongoing climate crises and “tag” the images with a digital graffiti of text, and social media iconography that encourage the viewer to stop, focus, be thoughtful and ask, “Why?”
ROMERO, Michele. 2016. ‘Nirvana's Nevermind album cover: Behind the scenes of the iconic photoshoot’. Entertainment 22 September [online]. Available at: https://ew.com/article/2016/09/22/nirvana-nevermind-album-cover-behind-scenes/ [accessed 21 July 2022].
BARTHES, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text. Fontana Press.
List of Figures:
Figure 1. Spencer ELDEN. 1991. Nevermind. Nirvana Website [online]. Available at: https://www.nirvana.com/album/nevermind/ [accessed 21 July 2022].
Figure 2. Mat CHACON. 2002. Conform, Like, & Subscribe. MatChacon.com [online]. Available at: https://www.matchacon.com/graffiti?pgid=l5rw6q9a-ec68b3ee-1b19-4736-8c37-595028ed1d61 [accessed 21 July 2022].