The caption is everything

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag wrote: “All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions.” She’s discussing Virginia Woolf’s argument that images of atrocity, because of their innate atrociousness, always speak out against war. Sontag disagrees and argues that in fact, depending on who is the victim in the photo — or, at least, who is labeled as a victim — a photograph of atrocity can also be an incitement to fight. One of her examples is the brutality committed by Israelis and Palestinians against each other. Show an Israeli mother a picture of her dead son and tell her that he was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber and you’ll likely get a response in favor of retaliation. Similarly, show a Palestinian mother a picture of her dead son and tell her he was killed by an Israeli tank, and she might also approve of a violent reaction. Woolf assumes that because the brutality of such pictures would shock us they could inspire nothing but revulsion at war. But in fact, they can incite us to fight. The fact is, a caption is always necessary. Goya knew that and that is why he added captions to the paintings in his series, “Disasters of War.” This one is called “Yo Lo Vi” (I Saw It):

Yolovi-1

And as we know, the way captions described those two pictures of black and white people looting/finding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina seemed to spell out the unconscious racial divide still at work in America.

The power of the captions accompanying those two pictures was particularly acute, since in the place of Goya’s indignant stand against war stood a blatant, if unintentional, illustration of inequality.

So what caption should accompany this picture?

It’s hard to tell what we’re looking at here, but it’s a tent with the sign “Fiction & Fantasy” on top. With no caption, it could be anything.

Bookfest1-1

But the beauty of it is that this was one of many tents set up for Laura Bush’s national book festival, which was occurring in Washington, D.C. at the same time as a large march against the war in Iraq. The tent was a showcase of fiction and fantasy novels, and it was set up steps away from a march that protested a war that, in many of our minds, was initiated due to Georgie’s and Dickie’s and other people’s fictions and fantasies.

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0 thoughts on “The caption is everything

  1. i knew it was a book fair. but i understand your point that interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. which is a scary and wonderful thing at the same time.

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