How to Use Text in Photographs

A beautiful Buddhist monastary in a spectacular landscape on the shores of Pangong Tso in Ladakh, India

The addition of text next to or below a photograph is usually included as a way of describing the scene or subject depicted. We know it as a caption and have become accustomed to its use in newspapers, books and magazines. Most coffee table books feature captions to help describe the image in question.

I've long used captions on my blog, Travel Photography Guru, to describe the photo in question. But there are other ways where text can be used to support a photograph. Let's explore a particular method that's worked well for me over the years.

Using Text as an Alternative to a Caption

Sometimes, when I exhibit prints in a traditional gallery environment, I include a line of text, mounted on foam core, just underneath the framed print. The text was not there to explain or describe the image, at least not in a literal sense, but to point towards motivations and alternate realities.

The idea is that, by juxtaposing the scene with the seen or, if you prefer, the seen with a glimpse into the unseen I hope to add to the viewing experience by encouraging the viewer to think beyond the obvious documentary connections they might otherwise make with the image.

By positioning the text just outside the frame it's easier for folks to choose wether to engage with it or not. I wouldn't want to bug anyone.

Let's look at the above photo as a case in point.

Tibetan Culture Alive In India

This beautiful landscape is located at the western end of Pangong Tso (tso meaning lake) at 4,350 meters above sea level on the border between India and Tibet. The lake itself is 134 km long and 5 km at its widest point. Despite containing saline water, the lake completely freezes over during winter. There are said to be no fish in the lake due, apparently, to the brackish nature of the water.

You can see a gompa (i.e., Tibetan monastery) in the foreground, Pangong Tso in the mid ground and mountains, lit by late afternoon light, at the back of the frame.

Remembering the Days of Film

The original photograph was made with a Hasselblad 503CWi camera and 120 medium format color negative/print film. I remember the night I made a 16 inch x 16 inch (i.e., 40 cm x 40 cm) exhibition print, in a pretty swish color darkroom I made use of during my tenure at Kodak back in the 90's. The image was part of my MA in Fine Art Photography I completed at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in Melbourne, Australia. Sadly I only have a low quality scan of the image at the moment, which is something I need to address quickly. 

The text that accompanied the image read as follows:

she was his first great love

he wondered on his life

and what he would do when she was gone

While I think it's important that the text be ambiguous enough to encourage the viewer to form their own conclusions and come to their own understands, possibly from their own life experiences, I'II let you in on a secret.

I was the he and me old mum, now 90 years of age was, well, the cat's mother

The jeep, a traveling companion and I had hired, broke down numerous times en route. Our driver, who ended up being quite a problem was, nonetheless, a wonderful bush mechanic. He brought that old jeep together time and again until, just before sunset, we arrived at Pangong Tso.

After initially greeting the local school teacher, who ended up barbequing a sheep for us in the tiny school yard later that night, I remember staggering up a steep slope, gasping for breath in the rarified air. Finally, I turned around and looked down and across at this most beautiful landscape. I made the image with warm light from the setting sun illuminating the scene.

A Moment Of Melancholy

And that's when it happened. Suddenly I thought about my mum and the distance that separated us. My heart ached in an intense melancholy moment, that bridge between bliss and sadness, that I've long considered most beautiful.

Is it a surprise to you that autumn is my favorite time of year?

I continued to photograph as the sun set and shadows crept, like a thief in the night, down the mountainside, across the lake and over the village fields and gompa below. As I write this I can remember the heat of the flames from that night's barbeque and the vivid dream filled sleep that followed.

It must be around 25 years, or thereabouts, since I made this photo. I'm glad mum and I are still here. And I'm glad you are to.

Perhaps you'll consider adding text to some of your own photographs, wether on a gallery wall or in the family photo album. And, while the usual explanatory text certainly serves a purpose, every now and again you might consider a more poetic approach. It's my belief that it can take your photography to an entirely different place.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru