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”:

Palin Family

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.

bristol palin is pregnant

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.

this is not a pipe

I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the use of captions in the comments below. I also recommend taking a look at Derik Badman‘s article, “Text In Comics.”

Like this post?

Sign up for my weekly newsletter and get new art, writing, and interesting links delivered straight to your inbox:


  1. says

    Weird we both posted on this on the same day! I love your water/vodka panels. A great example of using text to supplement images. It take some amount of more panels to show that the clear stuff in the cup is vodka rather than water.

  2. Django Onions says

    Interesting stuff!

    I think the phenomenon might also show itself with ‘novel into film’. You read a book and it conjures pictures in your head– characters and places. Then you see the film inspired by the novel. Pulling the book out again, all the original pictures in your head have changed, even though the words are exactly the same.

    Although that’s perhaps less interesting.

  3. says

    Actually, that’s a good point. As I mentioned a couple posts ago, my mother HATES music videos. The reason is that she gets her own picture of a song in her head when she hears a song on the radio. Then, when she sees the video, it ruins it — the video is never better than her imagination, and it forever taints her image of the song.

    Just as there are consequences to adding words to pictures, so are there consequences to adding pictures to words.

  4. says

    Austin, As a Marcel Duchamp scholar, (, ) AND a media ethics investigator, I really appreciated this post. Thank you.

    At, we consider fake or distorted captions, staged subjects in scene and other undisclosed manipulations –in addition to photoshop–as all part and parcel of the same “fauxtography”.

    Marcel Duchamp (some with Man Ray)did numerous altered photos using the standard set of photo tricks known since the beginning of photography. Go here to read more and see examples of Duchamp’s trick photography. He even made himself a ghost figure with a multiple exposure technique circa 1916-17.

    The key to your examples is not the selective choice of facts, but a choice between captioning a truth or a lie, eg. The glass is vodka OR it is not. The belly fat is a baby bump or it is not.

    I am going post this piece in our Media pics. So thanks again

    BTW. Loved your drawing of “This is not a pipe”! I about to publish an investigation about a fake history published in the The New Yorker and could use a smart cartoon(ist)? Please contact me [email protected] if interested.

    Bye for now, Rhonda

  5. says

    Rhonda: Thanks for the links! I will check them out. And you’re right: it’s about truth–what the truth is, and whether you tell it. That is, if you know what’s true and what’s a lie…

    Chris: Thanks for the kind words!

  6. says

    It’s true. I learned about this when I studied media – my teacher asked us to cut random things out of a newspaper and put it under a picture. Some were eerily apt. Do you think a great deal of thought goes in to captions? When I wrote for a newspaper, I’d literally just type whatever I thought the image showed. Usually the caption was very literal. I guess it’s one of those things that gives you away – like involuntary body language.

  7. says

    This actually came up at my job yesterday.

    A client wanted more photos on a website and she wanted them to rotate randomly on every page.

    I explained to her that if you put a picture on a webpage, you want the picture to some way strengthen, expand, or comment on the webpage as a whole, and the only way to do this was with a caption that is not just descriptive, but also illuminates the significance of the picture. If you have a bunch of pictures randomly rotating on a page, it says nothing — it’s just ornamentation/decoration.

    Of course, ornamentation is what most clients want. More graphics. More colors. “Make it pretty.” Make it bigger…

    …which is when you hand them some MAKE MY LOGO BIGGER cream.

  8. says

    does visual thinking equal simplicity

    Indexed by Jessica Hagy at VizThink ‘09

    This is a great little presentation by Jessica Hagy (indexed) on the importance of captions:

    So much of the visual thinking world…is all about “Let’s simplify it! Let’s make it so transparent and obvious that we won’t have to write up a giant memo, we’ll just draw a picture, it’ll be super,” and that’s it. But the fact is, the more simple the image is, the more ways there are to interpret it. It’s a Rorschach test for whoever’s looking at it. Even when you go to a Flickr site and you look at people’s images, you’re kind of like, “Wow, that’s a really interesting image, but what is it?” And those captions almost tell more of a story than the picture does.

    Spoken like a true copywriter!

    She also goes on to talk about stock photos, and how stock photos can be used to sell anything:

    stock photos

    Well worth checking out, as Hagy is right: a good portion of the VizThink community is all about “if only we find the perfect, simple image, all communication problems will be solved!” Should stir up some folks.

    (PS. Until the end, I didn’t realize that Tom asked a question by me.)

  9. says

    Jonathan Bass has an exercise he gives his students in his “Composing Graphic Narratives” class at Rutgers based on this post:

    Activity: Power of Captions

    Our second group activity is the exercise suggested by Austin Kleon’s “The Power of Captions: Words Added to Pictures”. Following Kleon’s analysis and examples, you’ll work in groups to create different gags, stories, or messages from the same image.

    Among other things, we’ll use this caption-writing activity for some preliminary practice with Photoshop and Comic Life.

    Working in groups of 3-4, complete the following series of steps.

    1. Find/produce a mix of wordless images. There should be at least six of these. Half need to be drawn (by you or found online) or clip art; half should be photographs.
    2. Save the images to the local desktop and open them in Photoshop.
    3. Move one table over clockwise.
    4. Select 3-4 images from the selection open in Photoshop. Choose at least one drawing or piece of clip art and one photograph.
    5. For each image, come up with two VERY different captions or labels that (optimally) change how we would see these images in two very different, even opposing ways. Use Kleon’s blog article as a your paradigm.
    6. Duplicate the image as demonstrated by the instructor.
    7. Then use the Photoshop type tool (or Comic Life) to add your conflicting captions to each image-pair.
    8. Re-save the images, and upload them to one (or more) of your Scribd accounts. Then email he instructor links to these online versions


  1. […] I switched from coffee to tea at work, so every morning I take an index card and set my tea bag down on it, letting the card soak up the tea. Then, I shop for images on the card, and riff off those with some doodles and captions. […]