On captions


Children have walked for weeks across the desert to get to Dadaab, and many perish on the way. Others have died shortly after arrival. On the edge of the camp, a young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children, many of whom died of malnutrition. Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam. From: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oxfam_East_Africa_-_A_mass_grave_for_children_in_Dadaab.jpg

On captions

Susan Sontag, in explaining the way a single photograph can be used to support any number of points of view, stated that “all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions” (2003: 10).  Photographs are ambiguous. This might seem counterintuitive because of the realism represented by pictures made with a camera. But photography does not provide meaning, it provides data. The surfeit of information that photographs contain require narratives to assign meaning, to develop understanding. More often that not, these narratives come in the short text called captions.

When a photograph is believed to be able to speak for itself, the captions are often limited to information on the time and place when then image was made. In this case, meaning comes through the narrative surrounding the use of the picture: articles, presentations, juxtaposed images. The ambiguity of a photograph allows it to be repurposed for many different ends. The ambiguity of a photograph also means that it has mutable relevance and force across space and time.

The affective elements of the photograph selected for the Summer 2016 edition of Reflections (Vol.4 No.2)—a lone child standing in an arid landscape, in front of numerous fresh-looking graves—draws viewers in. If used in other instances, that emotional grab might be taken advantage of and used to manipulate a donation out of people (Berger 2013). The photograph  would have a different meaning had it been on an aid agency donor-solicitation pamphlet, and different again between rights-based or religious-based aid agencies. In our case, the picture quickly turns to an educational moment because of the caption, which was the caption provided for this photograph in its original source location on the Wikipedia page about the 2011 East Africa drought. Given the wider context of the focus of this edition of Reflections on palliative care in humanitarian crises, the meaning becomes much more specific about the reality of death in certain crisis situations, thus supporting the recognition of the moral and practical imperative for humanitarian organizations to support palliative care.



Andy Hall/Oxfam; source, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oxfam_East_Africa_-_A_mass_grave_for_children_in_Dadaab.jpg



Sontag, S. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador

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