Pictures and Words

mickyatesAftermath, Cambodia, Critical Research Journal, Documentary, ICWeek8, Ideas, Informing Contexts, Photography, Plans & Notes, Practice, Quotes, Unfinished Stories, Work in Progress 1 Comment

Robert Frank said, ‘Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference, and it is important to see what is invisible to others’. (cited in Hirsch, 2001, pg 9).

I define my work as documentary storytelling, and my current project is ‘Unfinished Stories’ of Cambodians that I have known for two decades, who suffered but survived the Khmer Rouge Genocide. I am capturing these stories, for multi-media use, and am planning a book this year.

Extracts from my artist’s statement are relevant here.

Life is always in motion, every moment creates a sense of place or personality. Having travelled and worked all over the world, my photography is informed by my view that we are more the same than we are different – yet differences reveal stories. Details matter.

I am seeking intimacy, rapport with and understanding of the subject, whilst asking questions about who people are, what they’re doing, and what concerns them. 

There are two audiences for the Cambodian work. First, in Cambodia, I want to contribute to further opening up the discussion about this painful subject, which is often hidden. And, secondly, internationally, I want to reach an audience who may have forgotten (or not even know) about the lessons of the Genocide.

John Berger wrote that:

The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it. Such authority as it retains, is distributed over the whole context in which it appears’. (1972, pg 29)

In the last webinar with Michelle, we talked of ways of communicating the personal stories via combining images and captions.

Of course, images should be strong enough to stand on their own, though one of the challenges of ‘aftermath’ is narrating the present day against the backdrop of yesterday. This is not a project about the aftermath of Chernobyl. Nor is it about photographs taken at the time of actual events. My project is about the present-day telling of terrible historical events.

Paul Seawright’s work on Sectarian Murder is an instructive example, where he photographed present day scenes of past murders, using captions to hold the narrative together. Other Influences include Sophie Ristelhueber and Judy Glickman Lauder.

Through 2018, I have increasingly focused on metaphorical imagery, as the overall narrative is partly factual / historical, and partly allegorical / future looking.


  • a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable
  • a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else

The curtain of night fell upon us


  • a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one

Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of a spiritual journey

When I am in Cambodia, I always shoot with the stories of Sarath and others in mind. And, over the past year, my photography has become more abstracted, more metaphorical – partly to avoid some of the bear traps (dark tourism, picturesque, literal/obvious) and partly in an attempt to ‘stop’ the audience and help them think again about the subject matter.

I have also been experimenting with colour, black and white and infrared as ways of executing this.

Stepping back, it seems to me that the more metaphorical the photographs are, the more context is required to allow the images to come alive in supporting the narrative – witness the issue I had with a tutor that did not know my work at the F2F.

So, how should I think about captions and labelling? I have witnessed two basic approaches in galleries. Some people read the introduction, and study captions as they go around the exhibition. Others only look at captions on pictures that interest them.

Brown and Power note:

Captions are labels that refer to a specific object or image on display. They describe something about the object that the visitor can see and explain its significance or put it in context. Captions are often the only labels people will read in an exhibit and they will only read the captions of the objects that catch their eye‘. (2005, pg 107).

And the Tate conducted research on a Mark Rothko exhibition (2008), in which they found that:

  • 86 per cent were planning to read the wall texts
  • 61 per cent were planning to read the booklet made available for the show
  • 32 per cent were planning to use the multimedia tour (I suspect this number might be higher, today)

If forced to choose one resource, most people would opt for the wall texts.

For my project, I would prefer that the audience considers the image and caption together, or at least near simultaneously. Why? I feel the need for clarity, to be sure the meaning of each image relates to the narrative. I am also very conscious of my primary Cambodian audience, where visual literacy, frankly, is not universally high. If I am successful in my photography, it is unlikely that even that audience will recognise directly each place – some perhaps, but not too many.

There are of course many strategies to do this – writing on the image, images interspersed with text and so forth. I have experimented with several of these, and quite like the ‘Seawright’ solution – captions with each image.

In the examples below, the words are direct quotes from one of Sarath’s stories.

I think that this ‘dual’ approach would work well in an exhibition, though might not be best in a book, where spreads might work better. There is much experimentation to do, and I will be seeking feedback from tutors and fellow students, as I think this could be a valid (and potentially impactful) approach.

I can also see power in creating a video of these images and captions, which I will do.

BERGER, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. 2008 Edition. London: Penguin.

BROWN, Mary E. & POWER, Rebecca. 2005. Exhibits in Libraries. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.

HIRSCH, ROBERT. 2001. Photographic Possibilities: The Expressive Use of Ideas, Materials and Processes. Waltham: Focal Press.

Tate Gallery. 2008. Tools to Understand: An Evaluation of the Interpretation Material used in Tate Modern’s Rothko Exhibition. Available at (accessed 17/03/2019).

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