Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Adding Titles In Street Photography: They can really help a photograph tell its stories

Once again I find myself at odds with a number of people in the visual arts world, and more specifically in the world of street photography. You see, I happen to think that it is of huge importance to give my street and documentary photographs meaningful titles, titles that can add to the power or enjoyment of my photographs. Yes, I've heard that a picture is worth a thousand words (just by way of introducing a tiny bit of trivia, a study has proven that a picture is actually only worth 84.1 words. Don't believe me? Check out the report here), and I have heard that we should allow a picture to speak for itself.

And I have heard, and also hold to, the notion that a viewer should be allowed to bring their own interpretations to a photograph: the photo tells the story, but it's up to the viewer to decide what that story is. However, I think words are important too, and they can be used to add to the story telling ability of some photographs. And, cutting to the point of today's post, words can clarify the message or story a photo is trying to tell. A few words can clear up confusion is one way to put it.

Have a good look at this photograph, and think about what story it is telling you (I won't include the title underneath like I usually do; I don't want to give it all away just yet!)

Well, here we have a photo of a man sitting on a train station platform swigging from a bottle. Those are the facts, which of course are not the story. What story you are being told here is for you alone to hear. I can only speak for myself.

When I composed this scene in the camera viewfinder, this guy wasn't drinking: he was just sitting there waiting, I presumed, for the train. Then, just as I was about to press the shutter button, he took a swig from the bottle. Bum, I thought, I don't do pictures of people drinking (as in alcohol) on the street (or even at train stations). Still, trying to stick to my resolution to not chimp (ie check the photo on the screen of the camera), I didn't worry about checking or deleting it and just shrugged thinking, oh well another missed one.

Then at home when I uploaded the files to my laptop and zoomed in, I saw that in fact it is a lemonade bottle he is drinking from. Not a train station, platform sitting alcoholic after all. But, what to do? I liked the image. I wanted to complete it and share it. A title! As I've said, I title all my photos anyway, but in this case the title needed to say a little more; it needed to clarify what this photo is not.

So, the title of this image is The Not So Secret Lemonade Drinker. Clever don't you think? Well, maybe not. But for me it clears up a key point of potential confusion (not every viewer will take the time to zoom in and check the bottle). Sure, I know I might have ruined part of the story for some. On the other hand there's still plenty there for a viewer's imagination to play with in order to come up with the story (or stories) this photograph is wanting to tell.

Of course a photo should speak for itself. Of course a picture is or can be worth many words. But, you know, if a picture really is worth a thousand (or even 84.1) words, then what harm can there be in adding a few more carefully chosen, thoughtful words that might actually add something more to the picture?


  1. Paul, I agree with you. I always enjoy reading titles when they come with photos. I am guilty of not giving titles to my street photos, but it is not because I don't think giving a title is a good idea, but I have a hard time to come up with a good title. In my opinion, it's easier to write 100+ words than write a good title. HelenC (My wordpress id could not be verified -- have no idea what that means, so I have to choose anonymous...)
    So nice to see your post. ;-)

    1. Hi Helen Good to hear from you. Yes it's pretty hard sometimes to think of titles. I see it as a kind of creative writing challenge. Sometimes the title pops into my head as I am looking through the viewfinder to take the photo, sometimes it comes later when I'm editing the photo. Other times I do a lot of research on some element of the photo that stands out in my mind or a word that occurs to me. Even a song lyric! Other times of course no title at all comes up and I just have to wait! thank you for your comment

    2. Thanks, Paul.


I welcome any comments, questions, suggestions. The floor is yours! Sharing is a huge part of my philosophy, so please, share your thoughts with us