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Checking the details.

Captions can make or break an image. Consider the following image which was included in a handful of pictures of the year suggestions by various newsmedia:

Photo: © John Moore/Getty Images

The BBC ran it with the following caption:

US President Barack Obama warned of “difficult days ahead” in Iraq as US troops withdraw from towns and cities, six years after the invasion. Here a young boy reacts upon seeing his father return from a 12 month tour in Iraq.

The problem – just in case you didn’t spot it – is that if the father has been away for 12 months in Iraq, who, exactly, is “Daddy”?

The photo was taken by John Moore from Getty Images. A fine photojournalist awarded Magazine Photographer of the Year by POYi in 2008. He was the man at the scene when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated and his images will be familiar to anyone interested in world events. I don’t know, but I suspect that the caption as published by the BBC was not John’s own, which means that someone at the BBC should probably have been more careful when redrafting whatever the original caption was. Life also ran the picture in their review of the year, but with a different caption:

Ayden Kaplan, 3, spots dad– Staff Sgt. Joshua Kaplan–while standing next to his pregnant mother, Kendra, in Fort Carson, Colorado. Kaplan had just returned from a year in Iraq. Inside Kendra’s hand is an envelope with information on the gender of their unborn baby–she’d held off on opening it so she could find out with her husband. (It’s a boy.)

At least their caption says that the child is her husband’s, although it would still leave people wondering how it could have been possible. So, should Staff Sgt. Kaplan be worried? Thankfully no, as a different image (but clearly from the same sequence) was run by Life in another article with this caption:

FORT CARSON, CO – AUGUST 18: Kendra Kaplan, 5 months pregnant, watches as her husband SSG Joshua Kaplan and fellow U.S. Army soldiers arrive on August 18, 2009 in Fort Carson, Colorado. She had brought a sealed envelope with an ultrasound, so that they could learn the baby’s gender together upon Joshua’s arrival. The Kaplans will be having a baby boy, conceived during Joshua’s mid-term leave in March. Approximately 575 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat team from the 4th Infantry Division returned Tuesday following a 12 month deployment to Iraq. At lower left is their son Ayden, 3.

When the Washington Post ran the picture on August 19 (the day after it was taken) their caption was more careful, and I suspect came from Moore himself:

Aug. 18: Kendra Kaplan, 5 months pregnant, watches as her husband SSG Joshua Kaplan and fellow U.S. Army soldiers arrive in Fort Carson, Colorado. She had brought a sealed envelope with an ultrasound, so that they could learn the baby’s gender together upon Joshua’s arrival.

The question that ought to be pondered here is this: if a picture is supplied to a news or media organisation with a caption, should the organisation have the right to change the caption as they see fit, or should it be standard practice to use the caption supplied? Often the problem lies with the photographers themselves who submit images with very poor captions or non at all. Just because you take photos it doesn’t mean you don’t have to write the odd thing, and learning to do it well will give you much more control over how your pictures are used – and maybe save you the odd embarrassment.

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