Photojournalism is not just about pictures.
Photojournalists are reporters, and they must gather information and use words just like other reporters. Most often, these words are found next to the photos in what the profession most often calls cutlines. (Another term is caption.
Cutlines are necessary because as good and compelling as a picture might be, it does not explain itself. It can rarely identify the people included in the picture or explain the context of the picture. That’s why photojournalists must include a pen and notebook as an essential part of their equipment, and they must know what other reporters know about gathering information.
Cutlines are explanatory and descriptive copy that accompanies pictures. They range widely in style and length, from the one-line identifier called the “skel line” to the full “story” line. Cutlines are necessary to practically all pictures because of the functions they serve: identification, description, explanation and elaboration.
A well-written cutline answers all of a reader’s questions about a picture. What is this picture about? What is its relationship to the story it accompanies? Who are the people in it? Where are the events taking place and when? What does the picture mean? The cutline should answer these and other questions in such a manner that material found in any accompanying story is not repeated verbatim but is reinforced, amplified or highlighted.
The following are some general guidelines for writing cutlines.
- Use the present tense to describe what is in the picture.
- Always double check identifications in a cutline. This rule cannot be stressed too much. Many news organizations have gotten themselves into deep trouble through misidentification of people in a cutline, so cutline writers should take great care.
- Be as specific as possible in cutlines. Add to the reader’s knowledge, and go beyond what the reader can see in the picture. A cutline is useless if it simply tells the reader what can be seen already.
- Try to avoid cutline clichés. “Looking on,” “is pictured” and other such expressions are trite and usually avoidable.
Two general principles should govern an editor’s use of cutlines. One is that every picture should have some kind of a cutline. The words used in the cutline may be few, but they can add enormously to the reader’s understanding of the picture and the story the editor is trying to tell. The second principle is that everyone in a picture should be identified. Unnamed people are not very interesting, and their presence indicates a lack of interest on the part of the editor in doing a thorough job.
Cutlines are important because of the information they contain and because of the way they enhance the appearance of the paper. Cutlines should be simply and clearly written and displayed, and they should be given the same attention by the editors that other parts of the paper receive.
A word about accuracy
The photojournalist’s commitment to providing accurate information is just as strong as that of any other journalist. That’s why photojournalists take great care to get accurate information they can include with their photos. Just as other reporters do, photojournalists check the spelling of all names and places. They quote people accurately, using the words they say and the meanings they want to convey.
And they do not trust their memory. They use a notebook and record information about their photos while they are still on the scene.
(Part of this module was adapted from “Writing cutlines or captions” on JPROF.com, http://www.jprof.com/onlinejn/webjn-cutlines.html.)