What taking good photographs can tell us about writing good copy

In an effort to buttress the shaky détente between the DoW and our friends at the Department of Pictures, I am willing to publicly concede that words and pictures might have a lot to say to each other.

The insight I’m thinking of in particular comes from Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes.

In his book, Barthes develops two concepts with which to think about photographs, which are also useful ways to think about copy: studium and punctum.

Studium is “that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste”.

In other words, it’s all the stuff in a photograph that you like or can interpret using normal cultural references that are open to everyone within a culture. You get the reference with studium; it communicates clearly – but it doesn’t set your world alight. Barthes calls it “the order of liking, not of loving”.

On the other hand we have the punctum. Punctum is Latin for sting, speck, cut, or little hole. It’s the part of the photograph that ‘pricks’: the detail that rises above the ordinary and shakes you out of your complacency.

When you get stung by a punctum, you stop being a passive observer and start relating to the photograph in a deeply personal way. Suddenly, you start caring.

One punctum that pierces me is in this photograph by Reylia Slaby. It’s called ‘Never Leave Me’ and is part of her ‘Tales from Japan’ series.

Reylia Slaby, 'Never Leave Me', 2015

Reylia Slaby, ‘Never Leave Me’, 2015

Slaby is obviously referencing John Everett Millais’ portrait of Ophelia.

But look at her model’s right hand.

Where Millais’ Ophelia is a picture of relaxation, all open eyes, mouth, and hands, this model’s eyes and mouth are closed, her jaw is tense, and you can see the muscle tension in her grasping hands. That right hand is the punctum, the arresting detail that opens up the entire photograph.

As this example illustrates, for Barthes and indeed in practice, the punctum is a deeply personal and often unintended thing.

But it’s still a useful idea to bear in mind when writing copy.

Most copy is necessarily studium: understandable, relatable communication. But we should all aspire to include a punctum: a little detail that gets under the skin of a reader and makes her care: that bothers her.

A sting that takes your copy from a piece of rational communication that someone might like, to an arresting, bothersome, under-the-skin love.

And that’s something to which everyone, whether we deal in words or pictures, can aspire.