Who Were We Without a Photograph? Or Captions Are Needed!

Have you ever looked back at your family history? Do you have albums and boxes of un-notated prints? Small yellow boxes of transparencies or envelopes filled with soft focus prints yellowing from time. Hard drives and folders filled with images identified only by numbers and letters? Do you want to know who the people are in these photographs? But have no way of finding out.

I have recently spent time looking into my own personal history. There are few photographs and no information and that’s a problem. In fact the only detailed descriptive information I have is on my grandfathers’s crime sheets. This is not a joke or an exaggeration!

We often speak of photographs being documents of history, the proof of people’s existence. How they looked and what they wore, where the went and who they knew. But when the people have passed there is no one who can provide the narrative to a still image. Without carefully written captions what use are these photographs in explaining our family histories?

The truth is that photographs are our keyhole to the past but they fail if we cannot decode them.

I have recently spoken to friends who have had to clear the homes of parents and grandparents after they have passed only to find letters, notes and photographs in attics and at the backs of cupboards that reveal a tantalising glimpse into lives lived but never revealed. Insights into these people’s experiences, beliefs and adventures that were never discussed. Without exception my friends have commented that they now wished they had spoken in more depth with those who had passed when they had the opportunity to do so. These artefacts that have been left and found provide glimpses of the past but provide little if any definitive facts, presenting more questions than answers.

There is nothing that we can do about this in retrospect but we can prevent such issues in the future.

Photographs need captions. Captions that give the who, where, when and possibly the why. Not because we need them today but because the future will need them when we are no longer available to provide this information in person. This may seem obvious but how many of us actually do this? In the past the conscientious photography album compiler would carefully write under a photograph the date and place the photograph was taken, however consistency in this is rare. My own father has five decades of carefully compiled family albums but not one caption has been added to any of the hundreds of photographs. Whilst we are living this is an essential research archive of our family however the moment we are gone it becomes irrelevant.

The photograph is proof of our existence but only if we know who that photograph is of. I have a lot of captioning to do, I think you may have also.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

Scott’s next book Condé Nast Have Left The Building: Six Decades of Vogue House will be published by Orphans Publishing in the Spring of 2024.

© Grant Scott 2023

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