In April 2020—in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic—my friends and I gathered on Zoom to check in on each other. Zoom calls were still an unsettling novelty then. People made anxious jokes about the awkwardness of the setting; struggled to turn on their cameras; experimented with silly features.
After half an hour of confusion and hilarity, we settled down—and started to complain about life in quarantine. On the one hand, we were frightened of getting sick; on the other, we were bored out of our minds, seeing the same people and the same things day in and day out. How could we restore our sense of wonder in a world so constricted?
My friend, Andrew, an architectural critic, pulled Michael Sorkin’s 20 Minutes in Manhattan off his shelf and showed it to the group. “Sorkin wrote this whole book,” Andrew said, “about walking to work. It’s, like, nearly 300 pages. He spends the first 60 pages just talking about the staircase of his apartment building.”
Andrew is a polite, soft-spoken man, but his point was clear, painfully so. You can, in Elizabeth’s Bishop’s words, “see infinity in a grain of sand.” But you have to train yourself to do it: to look closely, intensely at the world around you. We could do that: we could learn to see the ordinary, the everyday, as a site of intense interest—but how?
Andrew had a suggestion: take a picture of something in your home every day and send it to the group with a caption—something to explain why it grabbed you, what it means to you, how being indoors all the time has changed your relationship to it. We started a text chain for accountability. Soon, my phone was buzzing with strange, evocative pictures: the backsides of radiators, shadows cast by curtains in the afternoon light, each photo accompanied with an evocative caption. Anna sent us a photo of the side of her apartment building, with the shadow of a sapling cast on it, golden in the early morning light; her caption: “Each day, I feel more like a sapling: tethered to the earth and yet reaching up to participate in the light”:
Some captions, like Anna’s were poetic and inspiring; some were funny; some sad; some full of hope. They brought us together, helped us stay in touch; taught us to see the wonder in the everyday. And, above all, they demonstrated how pictures and words have a magnetic relationship: each charged, energized, by their contact with the other. A picture can be beautiful, striking, moving on its own. But a good caption can transform the picture—giving it new depths and new possibilities.
BALANCING WORD AND IMAGE
How do you strike the right balance between word and image, saying enough to illuminate the picture, but not so much that you overburden it? What kind of information will be useful, so that the two work together, each reciprocally reinforcing the other?
At Biograph, we think a lot about these questions. We designed our platform to help you strike that balance, with open-ended questions that will guide and inspire you to reflect on the pictures that matter most.
Here, we’ve distilled our experience into to four best practices. These tips will help you do more than caption your photos. Whether you’re preserving family history or creating a personalized birthday card for your best friend, these practices will empower you to create vibrant writing that will enrich your pictures and ensure that they communicate with the people you love, now and in the future.
1) START SMALL
Let’s say you’re making a card for your friend’s birthday—and using a photo of the two of you together to do so. How to get started? How can you convey what she means to you? It’s easy to get overwhelmed, then to fall back on empty clichés. When you’re struggling to find the language to say what someone—or something—means to you, start small.
Describe the day the photo was taken: what do you remember about the atmosphere—sights, smells, sounds? What happened right before or right after the picture was taken? By focusing on these details, you’ll start to paint a vivid picture of your world: and, before you know it, you’ll be talking about the things (and people!) that really matter to you.
That’s why the guides in the Biograph platform start with simple questions. We want you to focus on the moment the picture was taken, to immerse yourself in its world, to build a foundation of vivid detail.
2) THINK OUTSIDE THE FRAME
John Cage tells a story about studying with the composer Arnold Schoenberg: “One day when I was studying with Schoenberg, he pointed out the eraser on his pencil and said, ‘This end is more important than the other.’” Similarly, the most interesting thing about a picture is often what it omits.
Maybe your aunt was making funny faces off camera to get everyone to smile; maybe the picture was taken just before you met your sweetheart. Or maybe looking at it, you remember things you’d forgotten about your childhood home—where your bedroom was; the knick-knacks your mom kept on the mantle.
When you describe a picture, your goal is always to open up the world it depicts—and, often, that involves stepping outside the frame. That’s why the Biograph app guides you around the corner, up the stairs, before the picture was taken or just after. When describing a picture, in other words, use it as a starting point—the first step in a journey that explores your world in all its richness.
3) FOCUS ON RELATIONSHIPS
We take photos at key moments in our lives: birthdays, graduations, weddings. Photos can tell a story of a whole life—from baby pictures to family reunions in the Florida Keys. But the richness of life lies in the relationship we form with the people—and the world—around us. Say, for instance, you have a picture of your parents’ first home: a ranch house in suburban Detroit.
There might not be anything magical about the architecture or the setting. But, if you get your dad to talk about the Sundays he spent fixing up the place, you’ll gain a window into his world and his personality. He might be gruff and impatient, but he expressed his love for his family through the care he devoted to the home he shared with them.
Biograph guides you to focus on relationships like these: between people and the places they love. Think of it as a shortcut: by focusing on these relationships, you’ll find yourself at the very heart of the world you want to describe.
4) THINK ABOUT YOUR AUDIENCE
Describing a picture is an act of love: you’re sharing its meaning with other people—people who matter to you today; people who might see the picture and wonder about your life in the future. As you describe your own photos, the Biograph app not only helps you consider who you’re sharing with, what kind of background and context they need to fully access your world. Even better, it helps you collaborate with friends and family to describe individual and shared experiences, whether you’re in the same room at the moment, or at a distance of miles and years.
Whether you use the Biograph platform as an interactive personal journal, a living archive of shared memory, a virtual memoir publishing tool, a new social media, or something totally unprecedented, these practices will help you generate the kind of records that bring a picture to life—vivid, detailed, full of energy and emotion.
Rarely a picture is eloquent on its own terms: no language needed. More often, pictures and language feed off of each other. A good picture elicits a better story; a story comes to life with a picture to anchor it. The Biograph app helps you experience such moments of magic reciprocity, when words and images speak together, when a picture truly does say a thousand words.