Travelling Light / Illuminating Captions



Late twentieth century theory has often had problems with the unruly quality of images and has often been at pains to assert that they are no more direct a way to represent the world than language. Popular culture knows the difference. In its acceptance of ocular dominance and its use of photography, film and video it implicitly recognises that images using linear perspective achieve a more unmediated presentation of reality than words. Despite the fact that images are becoming increasingly divorced from reality to the extent that they can be almost pure invention, they still remain less mediated than words even if the reality they reflect is entirely fictive.



The problem here is that images - especially photographs - require context. The solution has been to embed the image in language such as newspaper and family album captions, inserts in films (before sound cinematography and afterwards), the voice over of the documentary or news reader binding chronologically disparate visual elements into a coherent narrative. They tell us what to see and how to see it. Unless we are watchful we are rarely conscious of discrepancies, contradictions and manipulations. Often the function of the caption is not the support of the image itself, but of conjuring an image of what the image should be seen as representing. In many cases this is political work. The power of this word/image composite to propagate imperial and racist views was recognised very early both by commercial photographers who made exotic and erotic images for wide distribution as postcards as well as by those in command of imperial education.