Yesterday, I was thinking about telling a story in pictures without words, and so today, in the aftermath of all the Sarah Palin pregnancy conspiracy theory madness, I started thinking about telling a story with words added to pictures.
The documentary filmmaker Errol Morris had it nailed in his NYTimes article, “Photography As A Weapon,” about photoshopping, forgeries, image processing, captions (and John Heartfield and King Geedorah!):
Doctored photographs are the least of our worries. If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.
I don’t know what these buildings were really used for. I don’t know whether they were used for chemical weapons at one time, and then transformed into something relatively innocuous, in order to hide the reality of what was going on from weapons inspectors. But I do know that the yellow captions influence how we see the pictures. “Chemical Munitions Bunker” is different from “Empty Warehouse” which is different from “International House of Pancakes.” The image remains the same but we see it differently.
Change the yellow labels, change the caption and you change the meaning of the photographs. You don’t need Photoshop. That’s the disturbing part. Captions do the heavy lifting as far as deception is concerned.
If you read through this Daily Kos piece, the writer presents pictures of Palin at various stages of her pregnancy looking thin and trim as “evidence” that she wasn’t really pregnant with her fifth child, but it was her daughter, Bristol, who was pregnant. The article is simply a list of photographs with captions—and the captions control how we read the photographs.
Many folks pointed to this picture as evidence of a Bristol Palin “baby bump”:
A picture which would otherwise be an innocuous portrait of a nice-looking family is turned into a sinister conspiracy by the words, or caption, adjacent to it.
The moral of the story is that pictures can say whatever we want them to say, provided we use the right words.
The power of captions can be used for good, or it can be used for evil. For a cartoonist, it’s a potent weapon, which can take any drawing and turn it in many different ways. Take this hasty doodle:
Depending on which captions I use, you’ll get a different picture of who I am, yes? In comics, it seems, the old creative writing adage “show don’t tell” is useless—you can certainly tell as much as you show, show what you tell, or tell what you show.