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Ministry of Education.

Image Selection, Cropping and Captioning: A case study

The context

The first contingent of New Zealand troops from the local military base at Linton near Palmerston North was leaving for peacekeeping duties in Bosnia in September 1994. The event had great local significance, as well as national and international interest, and so the provincial paper, the Evening Standard, Manawatu, was keen to give front page coverage.

Who chooses front page photos?

In this case, the news editor read the journalist's copy and discussed the choice of images with the photographer. Two powerful images were in contention for the front page. The news editor made the final decision because that page is her responsibility.

Imagine that you were that news editor. Without the journalist's copy, consider which photo or photos you would choose.

Why? Consider whether you would crop the photo or photos you selected and how and why you might do so. Write your caption(s) for the selected photos to clarify meanings. Compare your choices and your reasons for them with the decisions made by the news editor and her reasoning.

What are the merits of each image?

The father and son image conveys the bond between the two through their bodies - the father is at the child's level and comfortable, while the boy, assisted by the father's hand holding him fairly lightly, leans trustingly. Both of the father's hands contribute to the relaxed warm atmosphere. The line of the boy's body shows his physical closeness. The naive innocence on the boy's face and his father's answering expression are the focal part of the image, a poignant image when we think about how the two will be parted, but one that contains trusting warmth from the child. The two adult bodies embracing convey a similar intimacy but with an intensity and sense of anguish - anxiety and impending loneliness at least - because both anticipate and understand the length and nature of the separation. The hidden faces suggest much more emotion, much more sadness, than we'd normally see in a public departure.

Why crop?

The photo of the embrace showed context detail, including the young girl, perhaps a daughter, on the left, and the open door of the bus on the right. But its central dominant image of a couple embracing each other is very powerful. If only that part of the photo were to be used, it could be used in a much enlarged form because the format would change from horizontal to vertical (or from landscape to portrait).

Which image was chosen?

A choice had to be made between the intensity of the embrace and a cuter but less certain image. The paper, through the news editor, had to decide whether this farewell was to convey a reassuring or an anxious image. The photographer argued for his favoured image - the child and father. The news editor thought differently.

 The paper ran both images. The much cropped and enlarged embrace dominated a dramatic front page that stopped readers in their tracks, involving them in the pain of the separation and making them wonder about the perils of peacekeeping. The caption read, "Oblivious to everyone, Lance Corporal Paul Dodds embraces girlfriend Rachael Chambers for the last time before the bus goes."

After such a strong and sobering start on the front page, the child smiled poignantly in black and white inside on page two. The caption read, "Alexander McCarthy, 2, couldn't understand what all the fuss was about but had a few quiet minutes with his dad, Sergeant Noel McCarthy."

These decisions were made, along with hundreds of others, by 11.00 a.m. as part of the daily newspaper routine. Teachers exploring visual language as part of a professional development programme had the luxury of debating the issues under less pressure and at comparative leisure, and they reached the same conclusions.

Exploring language content page

Published on: 07 May 2009