Caption Actions

Sub-editors conform to some innate dictum that captions are always wrong.  They can re-write them before they see the picture, before they read the story, even before the job has happened.  If a photographer spells a name differently to the scribe, the scribe wins.  Ann becomes Anne, and visa-versa.

The caption has its own language.  This is the only domain where people “share” jokes, where we must told that Taoiseach Enda Kenny is “(centre)” as he poses with bikini-clad Miss Ireland finalists, where it is explained that the thing Paul McCartney is holding is a guitar.  Such pearls are, presumably, to enlighten the blind reader.  They are constantly and gratuitously corrected: “Strolling in the park” becomes “mother and daughter stroll in the park” – and that one cost a few bob when aunty sued.  “Romantic couple” is another lawyers’ retirement fund contributor, with father and daughter being fiscally uplifted by the careless presumption (that also happened!).

Even captions that are right will be wrong by the time they hit print.  I once photographed a man with his wife and another woman for an evening newspaper social column.  It was a boring must-be-done picture at a boring must-be-done function, sponsored by my company of which the man was a director.  Of course, I knew that his wife was the one on the left and the caption said so.  Next day, the caption still related she was on the left, but the picture indicated she was in the middle.  The editor intuitively and unhesitatingly understood the problem – the photographer had goofed.  Who could argue? Naturally, the matter was brought to my attention.

Later, tail between legs, I humbly scrutinised the picture.  It was not reversed, manipulated, cut, collated or otherwise mutilated.  The caption was exactly as I had written.  My mistake I concluded and in a rare moment of humility I concluded that the sub-editor on this occasion was right.  But a small doubt lingered and niggled.  Investigating the negative files, I found the answer.  A colleague who was working for the other paper in the group had shot the same three people at the same event but in a different order. The photos fell victim to a three-card-trick on the back desk and his picture appeared with my caption.  And somehow, the photographer had still goofed.  Better again, two photographers had goofed.

And the caption lives to fight another picture.

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