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Make a statement: if your subject matter contains words, consider including them in your photos to expand context and meaning.

I disagree with the cliche "A picture is worth a thousand words." A few images may be, but most are not. It depends on the content and the value of the picture. Of course, I am biased. I earned my college degree in journalism, so words have always been extremely important to me as a communicator. However, as I began to realize the expressive potential of photographs as communication, I found myself treating words and images as equals, letting my pictures become catalysts for the imagination, and using words in my captions to supply important context as necessary.


I also discovered that by making photographs with appropriate words already nesting somewhere within the frame, I could add instant context and thereby expand their meaning. The examples shown here, which I made in the San Francisco Bay area, demonstrate some of the ways that words can productively work within the image itself. In one of these examples, the words within the picture offer the primary subject matter. In the others, the words are contextual; without them, the image would be less meaningful. Words can work in pictures not just to offer context; they can create incongruities or suggest the location of the subject, offering a sense of place. They can also speak of another era, create irony or humor, symbolize social forces, and even provide a title.

My first example (left) features a mural just off Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, that tracks the key events of the student protests at the University of California that launched a cultural revolution in the 1960s. The words in this image offer context and even the tide for the mural. The figure at left reads a newspaper bearing the headline "A people's history of Telegraph Ave." A barrier reads "Road Closed"--a symbol of the aggressive police presence in Berkeley during the student revolt. I saw this student coming when he was a block away and waited for him to enter my frame. The play of light, shadows and colors in this image bonds him to the past, even if he does not seem to realize it.

William Randolph Hearst's publishing empire was once headquartered in the building in my second example (top right), renovated in 1937 by the famed architect Julia Morgan. The ornamental grillwork over its front door brings a touch of Art Deco nostalgia into the 21st century. I create an incongruity by contrasting this ornamental entry to a kiosk featuring an advertisement for men's cosmetics. Just as Morgan created an ornamental screen for the building, the reflections in the curved glass of the kiosk offer a shimmering screen of light and shadow for the smoldering portrait within it. The entire image comes together, however, because of the words on the kiosk. The name of the city authenticates the scene, giving it a sense of place and identity. The word newsstand also appears in the image, an appropriate reminder of Hearst's business.


In the late 1960s, after the federal prison on Alcatraz Island had closed down, hundreds of Native American political activists occupied the island as a symbolic "reservation." My third example (above) features the graffiti they painted on the U.S. emblem above the entrance to the prison. The occupiers have cleverly built the word flee using four of the red stripes in the shield. That word, which becomes the subject of the picture, is rich in irony. The eagle and shield are symbols of freedom, yet the old prison is not. Historically confined to reservations, Native Americans have suffered imprisonment of another kind. I zoom in on the shield to stress this alteration, and include the crumbling eagle for context. Without the word free, this would be a picture about age and disrepair. With it, the image becomes a political statement.

by philip n. douglis, abc, iabc fellow

Phil Douglis, ABC, directs The Douglis Visual Workshops, now in its 40th year of training communicators in visual literacy. Douglis, an IABC Fellow, is the most widely known workshop leader and columnist on editorial photography for organizations. Douglis offers training programs as one-on-one tutorial workshops in digital imaging and photographic communication. These tutorials provide flexibility in cost, length and content; extend from one to four days; and can be adjusted to cover everything from basic digital photography skills and photo-editing to photographic expression. The tutorials are offered in Phoenix, Arizona, on dates convenient for the participants. For registration information, send an e-mail to You can view Douglis's multigallery cyberbook on expressive digital photography at
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Title Annotation:photocritique
Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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