Captioning and Capturing the Past
Robert Root

The Presentation:

         Texts, literary or otherwise, have always been a medium for transferring the images in a writer's mind into a reader's mind.  In our time, images are simultaneously both medium and message.  To help my students in freshman composition, graduate composition, and creative nonfiction courses become better readers of images and better users of images as writing resources, I've been asking them to draw upon the images that they have stored in their minds, stuffed in their billfolds, and tacked on their bulletin boards as ways to trigger memory, develop description, and spark reflection.  To help them capture the past I ask them to caption images that open windows into the past.
         Part of the impulse for this strategy comes from the department in Civilization Magazine  titled "Caption: What's in a Picture?"  The "Caption" department is a single page with a photograph accompanied by a writer's response or interpretation.  Sometimes their interpretations are analytical; sometimes they are imaginative as when Geoff Dyer writes on Robert Capa's photograph, "Italian Soldier After End of Fighting, Sicily, 1943."
         Sometimes the Caption essay is about a photograph in the writer's personal collection.  Carol Shields examines her mother's photograph of an unidentified woman and gleans a great deal about the context for the picture by close reading, drawing on her own experience of Manitoba living. Joyce Carol Oates explores the circumstances surrounding a 1941 photo of her mother and herself, including not only the local setting but also the global context.  The photograph is a way back into the past, a way of locating herself, giving herself a position from which to speculate and reflect about family, history, personal experience.
         At the end of her half-page article Oates writes:

If Oates is right, that "when we claim to 'remember' our pasts, we are surely remembering our favorite snapshots," then those images can serve to bridge what she calls the "mysterious abyss of time" in order to capture the past.  This is an insight memoirists often draw on.  Photographs have been used to considerable effect in All But the Waltz  by Mary Clearman Blew, Fathers, Sons, and Brothers by Bret Lott, and That Shining Place  by Simone Poirier-Bures.  These examples demonstrate how useful, even how vital, photographs or the memories of photographs often are for accessing memory and generating writing.
         Before asking my students to write from images, I wrote my own journal entry about two photographs of my family in Cooperstown, taken around 1953.  I use this journal entry and these selected Caption pages to illustrate the ways close description surfaces context, meaning, and perspective.
         In a caption journal entry students are free to explore their photos in their own ways; it gives them one possible route to follow for a more fully developed personal essay, but since it is personal, I let them decide whether to pursue it that far.  I continually attempt to get students working subconsciously on assignments, find ways to set synapses firing that involuntarily open the way to topic and memory and attitude.  In freshman composition students write a daily log entry on a 5" X 8" notecard, usually in response to a question about work in progress.  So I ask them to bring one or two photographs to class and I project some of them up on a screen at the front of the room for students to "read"--that is, to describe and interpret.  The log entry on the photographs lets the students react to their photos in the way we've been reacting to them in class, and then the caption journal entry invites them to develop their interpretations and reactions.
         If you ask students to think of one photo they might write about or the photo that most powerfully comes to mind, they usually settle on one or two very quickly.  In a log entry one student writes, "I begin to think about the picture around my neck" or another claims, "I brought the six pictures that always stay in my Day Planner."  Usually they think of pictures involving family or friends, and frequently they themselves are in the picture, in characteristic or uncharacteristic poses.  One student said in her log entry, "It is a picture from my childhood.  I was probably about three, maybe four.  I am lying in my pajamas fast asleep in a dresser drawer." Often, even in the first burst of identifying the photos, they begin to get at the underlying context of such pictures for them, as when one student writes: Often the pictures they choose are ones that they identify with the best times with friends or family or those that picture friends and family they've lost.  Perhaps photographs are not only a way to get in touch with the past but also a way to recognize the losses we've suffered, often incrementally or inadvertently, over time.  It doesn't take a long time for photographs to begin to give us perspective on our pasts.
         Take the child sleeping in the drawer, for example.  In her captioning journal entry Kelli gives the date of the picture as February 1983, when she was "a month shy of age three."  She writes, "I am wearing floral printed pajamas.  These pajamas were most likely created by my grandmother, like many of my childhood clothes were. The dresser I am sleeping in was made from Grandfather's own crafty hands."  These are good details, which I think emerge from trying to write about what she sees.  They aren't part of the earlier log entry, which is acceptably vague and brief.  In the journal entry she writes, "I am huddled up in the fetal position cuddling with my favorite blanket."  She remembers that she called the blanket her Binky and that she was eight or nine before her mother made her give it up.  Then her description of herself surfaces the underlying reason this picture has meaning for her. In the remainder of the journal entry she talks about trying to "slowly and carefully break away from the shelters my parents have put around me," how she rose above the barriers in adolescence and was gently guided back to shelter.  She concludes, "I am beginning to wake from peaceful slumber and realize it's time to grow up and face reality.  It's time for me to give up the cozy comfort of 'Binky' and break away from the enclosing shelter of the drawer."  As a college freshman living away from home, she uses her analysis of this photograph to get at both why she treasures the picture and how it connects to deep-seated and important issues for her, about separation, about independence, about the difference between being nurtured and being constrained.
         Another student chose to write about a photograph of her daughter and another little girl, both six year old flower girls at a family wedding.  After describing the circumstances and the costumes, Brenda begins to reflect on the picture. And then Brenda gets beyond the moment and deeper into the significance of the photograph for her: The journal becomes an occasion for foreshadowing, putting the moment into the context of their future lives as well as their past.
         The journal entries often end with fresh insights for the students.  The photographs give them a focus for reflection, perhaps makes it easier to be aware of their emotions at particular moments, to recall them and, better yet, to respond to them.  One student wrote about a picture of her aged grandfather with a stack of Christmas presents on his lap, a familiar Christmas pose made poignant now because, in advanced stages of Alzheimer's, he doesn't know how to open his unwrapped packages. She writes, "Yes, my grandpa is in the picture--but is that really him anymore?"  It's a painful and perplexing question.
         Students often ponder to what degree the photographs really show the truth of a moment.  One student showed a picture of three generations of men in his family, including himself, proudly holding up by the antlers the heads of the three bucks they had killed that November day.  "It seems so unlikely that the three of us should be seen together with smiles on our faces," he writes.  His grandfather "sat in the bar spending the money needed to raise his family of nine" while his wife raised the children.  His father, who was in jail when the student was born, saw little of his son "as he bounced back and forth between jail and home."  Three days after the photograph was taken, the son angrily moved out of the family house.  He writes, "That's why this picture is so memorable for me.  What would bring the three of us together this day with smiles on our faces?  From the picture, nobody can see these differences between us.  You only see a son, his father, and his father's father happily showing off the deer they bagged on this beautiful November night."
         Not all the writing that this captioning essay produces is as intense or insightful as some of these examples are.  But it often helps the students get more deeply into subject matter.  It also helps the students avoid the wheel-spinning or throat-clearing that often takes up early pages of an early draft, encouraging them instead to plunge into the heart of the subject.  Listen to these opening lines: "It would be one of the last times the three of us would be together, Karin, Robin, and I." "I had not seen her for a few years when I received this picture of her." "I always keep it around my neck.  . . . Until I looked at it I didn't understand that it seemed to be the beginning of a mistake."  From these beginnings they go deeper into the subject.
         I use this captioning assignment in courses from freshman composition to a graduate seminar in nonfiction.  As a journal entry it takes a brief time to write and doesn't require a lot of preparation.  As a diagnostic piece of writing, it gives me a rough sense of what the students do with description, narration, exposition, and reflection.  I also use it as an icebreaker that will plunge us all into sharing our writing and making student writing the center of class meetings--this is short enough and informal enough not to be too intimidating yet still challenging enough to require imagination and thought.  Finally, I also use it as a group prewriting activity to give everyone a chance to see each other's pictures, listen to each other's memories and interpretations, and surface more of their own memories and reflections.  It helps bring them into a state of readiness to tackle the first personal essay assignment and to work together as a class.  It also gives them a strategy to use on their own for later assignments; often they return to the captioning journal they've written to explore and develop its ideas, images, and themes into full-blown papers .
         Because I want my students to approach their writing as novice writers, rather than simply as disengaged students, I like having the chance to let them work with strategies that experienced writers work with.  By captioning the images of their lives, they are developing strategies that will help them capture--and write--their pasts.

Captioning and Capturing the Past: Some Examples

Published Excerpts

On A Photograph in Her Mother's Album

The scene speaks to me strongly of Winnipeg: the limestone foundation of the house, the board siding and the bright prairie sunlight breaking through the bare branches.  It must be a relatively mild day in late October or November, since the awning has not yet been taken down for the winter.  Any moment now this awning will be weighed down with snow or torn to shreds by the ferocious winds that sweep in from the north.  Manitoba is a place of climate extremes, with one season usurping the other, and without warning.
     The woman's face and body strike me as a brilliant mixture of vulnerability and strength.  That sprightly hat, those thickly stockinged legs, that practical coat belted against the cold!  The softness in her face is countered by a certain tension in the arms and the way in which her hands are clutched and drawn into her sleeves for warmth.

(Carol Shields, 112.)

On "Italian Soldier After End of Fighting, Sicily, 1943" by Robert Capa

 The hot Mediterranean landscape.  Dust on the bicycle tires.  Sun on her tanned arms.  Their shadows mingling.  The sizzle of cicadas, the slow whir of the bicycle.  The photograph would be diminished without that bicycle; it would be ruined without her long hair.  Her hair tells us: This is how she was when he left; she has not changed; she has remained true to him.
 She asks about the things that have happened to him; he is hesitant at first, but there is no hurry.  Eventually, he tells her of the friends he has lost, the terrible things he has seen.  He is impatient for news of friends and relatives back in their village.  She tells about her brother who was also in the army, about the funny thing that happened with the schoolteacher and the butcher's dog.

(Geoff Dyer, 100.)

On a Photograph of Her Mother and Herself, 1941

My 27-year-old father, Frederic Oates, "Freddy," taking snapshots of my mother and me on this sunny afternoon, is worried about being drafted into the army; in the meantime he's working at Harrison Radiator, a division of General Motors in Lockport, New York, involved in what is unofficially believed to be "defense work" (airplanes).  It's a tense, unpredictable era in our history, yet such global turbulence is remote from the grassy backyard of our family home in Millersport, New York; here is a leafy, spacious world, in which my 24-year-old mother, Carolina, and I, an inquisitive child of three years 11 months, appear to be playing with new-born kittens.  How happy we must have seemed to that long-lost "Joyce Carol," with little more vexing in her life than the ordeal of having curly hair combed free of snarls and prettily fixed with a ribbon, and being "dressed up" for some adult special occasion. . . .
     Memory is our domestic form of time travel.  The invention of photography--in particular, the "snapshot"--revolutionized human consciousness, for when we claim to "remember" our pasts, we are surely remebering our favorite snapshots, in which the long-faded past is given a distinct visual immortality.  Just as art provides answers long before we understand the questions, so, too, our relationship with our distant past, in particular our relationship with our parents, is a phenomenon we come to realize only by degrees, as we too age, across the mysterious abyss of time.

(Joyce Carol Oates, 96.)

On a Photograph of Her Grandparents

Abraham, your photograph hangs over my desk.  Above the reflection on the glass from the window opposite, Mary stands stalwart behind you while your gaze is set eternally over my shoulder.  In the reflection, superimposed over you and Mary in your good formal dark clothes, the Snake River spreads its current as it rolls toward its confluence.  The early lights of winter glow on the far bank of the Snake and glow again in the reflected depths of your photograph.  I am a long way from home.

(Mary Clearman Blew, "Remembering Abraham," All But the Waltz: 38.)
Journal Excerpts from Student Writers

On a Photo of Herself at Three Sleeping in a Drawer

I am wearing floral printed pajamas.  These pajamas were most likely created by my grandmother, like many of my childhood clothes were.  The dresser I am sleeping in was made from Grandfather's own crafty hands. . . . I am in a peaceful slumber.  I am in my own childlike cocoon.  Sometimes I wish I could go back to my childlike cocoon.  My mother once told me that on that day she had thought she lost me.  She searched the whole house up and down screaming my name aloud.  I of course had blocked out the confusion around me.  Now I realize it's time for me to wake up from my cocoon and face the confusion head on. . . . I am trying to slowly and carefully break away from the shelters my parents have put around me. . . . I am beginning to wake from peaceful slumber and realize it's time to grow up and face reality.  It's time for me to give up the cozy comfort of 'Binky' and break away from the enclosing shelter of the drawer.

On a Photo of Her Daughter and Another Six-Year-Old at a Wedding:

The pose touches me, their arms about each other, having forged a bond of friendship through participating in a ritual they did not fully understand or particularly enjoy.  Their disheveled dresses and bare feet bespeak the whimsy of children to put off pomp and pretense in favor of dancing themselves into exhaustion for the sheer joy of it. . . .
 Seeing her dressed up was me for a portent of moments to come between my daughter and me.  Hazy scenes of dates, dances, proms, and shadows of her own wedding flickered in my mind.  I was aware as I took this picture that others like it were to come in our lives together.  The events and rituals of a daughter growing, maturing, coming of age and beginning her own independent life is timeless and inescapable in some form or another.

Journal Assignment:  A Speculation on Captioning Photographs

We talked in class about captioning photographs in a brief essay or journal entry.  I showed you some examples from the back page of Civilization Magazine, including a caption essay by Joyce Carol Oates in which she uses a picture of herself as a child and her mother to reflect on both the context of the photograph and the nature of photography's influence on memory; in another example Mark O'Donnell uses a photograph of himself and his twin brother as a jumping off place for a discussion of cloning and individuality.  In another example I gave you a handout that showed you my own response to two family photographs of my own, in which I tried to remember the context for the photographs and explain the relationships among the people in the picture then and now.

Taking these examples as a starting point, browse through your own photographs or personal pictures you remember particularly well, and write a journal entry of your own as a similarly extended caption to the photo you select.  What does the photo tell you or another viewer?  What does it make you think about the context of the photo (the circumstances under which it was taken) or the nature of photography as a cue to memory?  Write for 25-30 minutes on the caption and bring it and (if possible) your photograph to share and hand in during class next time.

Works Cited
  Robert Root, Department of English, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48859
Phone: 517-774-3103   E-mail: <>   Fax: 517-774-1271
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