Captions: A Love Story


Captions. Not the sexiest of topics, and often a pain in the ass to write well, but I have to admit they’re one of my favorite tools in the content and design arsenal. In fact, let me just say it – I love them. 

Picture this: You are paging through a gorgeously designed annual report from an organization you don’t know too well that’s filled with all sorts of beautiful imagery – photos, graphs, charts, you name it. Each one, however, is labeled something like “Figure 1: Unemployment rate 2012-18”, or “Left to right: Mr. Jones, Ms. Lewis, and Director Gold.” Doesn’t tell you much.

These kinds of captions don’t get you any closer to understanding the main point the writers wanted you to take away from their publication. You have no idea what Mr. Jones, Ms. Lewis or the Director were doing in the picture – preparing for a cooking competition? Opening their new designer hotel chain by posing in a conference room? It could be anything. I’d have to actually read (gasp!) the full section to understand what the imagery was telling me, and sadly I’m running off to another meeting soon. An opportunity lost!

What you want is to write detailed, narrative captions that help move your story forward. Here are three tips that can help you to get more mileage from the visuals in your organization’s next publication:

Write your captions first

One trick I like to use is to write captions first. While I’m working on the content, I think “what bite sized piece of information will help readers understand the main point of this story?” Maybe I’m talking about a project that has had a huge impact on getting young women in a particular community to continue taking their HIV treatments. I might write a caption like “[Name] visits her peers in [community], talking to them about the importance of ART . Peer supporters like [name] have helped increase adherence rates by 53% in [community/country].” Then I can look through the images that I have and find one that would work to tell this story, and customize the caption with the specifics from the image (or, alternatively, find someone on the project who can take one if we don’t have something on hand). You would do this same process for all the key points in your story, and pair the captions with appropriate images. This doesn’t always work, but it’s a great place to start (and would be super helpful as guidance for the shot list you give your photographer if you can do it before you actually take the pics).

Use more abstract/general photos and stretch your photo bank

Writing narrative captions can mean that you can use abstract/unspecific images in a powerful way (and reuse the same photo in multiple publications, if you need to!) Imagine you have a close up of a HIV peer educator in a t-shirt talking to a crowd. There’s no identifying information in the image, so you could use the image to tell several stories – the impact of community sensitization campaigns, a successful community-based ART treatment campaign, the outcomes of an HIV research project. Just by changing the narrative caption the image can represent different factions of your work. (Be careful, however, not to overuse images – your audience will notice eventually!)

Write narrative captions for charts and graphs, too

You might think that charts and graphs are pretty self explanatory, but they can also benefit from narrative captions. It’s much easier to understand how a bar graph or a pie chart relate to the story being told if you give it some context. Instead of only labelling it “Fig 1: Female unemployment rates in Northern Sri Lanka 2012-2018”, you can add on  a narrative caption to better tell the story – “The PRIDE project has helped significantly increase formal sector employment of women in Jaffna Province through a targeted TVET and apprenticeship programs and innovative workplace child care initiatives.” If someone is skimming they’ll get a much better sense of what the impact of the importance of the PRIDE project.

Your turn.

Give it a try when you’re creating your next publication, and let me know how it goes. 

NOTE: Whenever you’re using images of groups or individuals, you need to make sure to follow all ethical guidelines. Photoshare has a great resource on the basics of the ethics of development and photography you can read here.


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