I vividly remember entering a nature themed competition as a beginner photographer and being totally bamboozled as to why the judge repeatedly made reference to the title of the images rather than focusing on the image itself. I wasn’t alone, and there were mutterings from the other contestants that it was a photography competition, not a title competition! And clearly that’s true, but at the same time I came to realize that a good title for your picture is vital. In a nature competition, the viewer wants to know what they’re looking at. What species? And what is happening? They weren’t there when the photograph was taken, so the title serves to add context to the image.
Titles are particularly important when the content of the image isn’t obvious, such as when photographing abstracts, or if you have a specific message you want the picture to convey. For me, the purpose of my creative images is to tell a story or to convey emotion, but unless I explain that the viewer may not see the intention behind the picture.
I share new images with my friends on Facebook. Sometimes I struggle to find exactly the right title for my photographs so ask for recommendations and it always surprises me what is suggested. In my head the message in the image is clear, yet often my friends miss the point completely! I created this image of a marionette doll recently. The story was that she had been shackled to someone who was controlling her every move and had cut the strings in order to be free, but I was struggling to convey that in the title so asked my friends for their input. One of the suggestions was ‘High Five’ and while that was clever and I can see where it comes from, ie the five fingers above the puppet, it missed the whole point of the image. The emotion I feel when I think of high fiving someone is that of joy, fun or excitement, whereas the mood I was actually trying to convey was release from dark bondage! I ended up calling this picture ‘Broken But Free’ which much more describes the intention behind the shot.
Having said all that, art is by its very nature subjective and we are all going to see our own view of the world reflected in a picture. A friend and I were discussing this image recently and while my intention when creating it was to get the viewer to empathise with the plight of beautiful, intelligent wildlife imprisoned in cages for their entire lives, my friend saw a feminist message about the imprisonment of women and the suppression of their rights and liberties. Both stories are equally valid and I loved the fact that she saw something in my picture which I hadn’t even considered! The title was succinct enough to convey the message of imprisonment, yet loose enough to allow for many different interpretations.
The other thing about titles is that it makes you think about why you took the photograph. As a beginner photographer I just snapped subjects because they were there or looked pretty, but as my skills developed I started creating with intention as I wrote about in this post. I now begin my photography with a concept and work from that, and sometimes I even begin with a title and work from that! It helps me think about why I’m taking the picture, what I hope to convey and what I’d like the viewer to take away from the experience.