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Friday, January 15, 2010

Lolcat Building: An Exercise in Creativity

The majority of documents that are written every day by students and non-students alike are rather dull.  They have to be to fulfill their purpose.  Lab reports, patient records, legal briefs, grant proposals are all essays that are generated using the analytical side of one’s brain.  Creative expression is not welcome in this kind of literature because it can distort the message. 

As a result, a great number of people are walking around on this planet with the mistaken notion that all writing is dry, dull, and tedious to both read and write. 

Innovative thinking, the imagination to approach situations from different angles, creativity are all highly coveted in this century.  But how exactly does an uncreative person become creative?  

Captioning photos is an exercise that develops creativity.

It does so because it requires that you engage your imagination as you evaluate the picture.  You have to ask yourself questions like “What is going on in the photo? What is the context of the situation pictured in the photo? What is included in the picture and what, if anything, is excluded?  Out of everything I have evaluated, what is most important? What phrase or sentence can I use to succinctly and accurately capture the one meaning I wish to focus on in the picture?” 

If you’ve ever tried to caption a photo well (I say “well” because slapping “a tree in a field” under a picture of a tree in a field is not a good faith effort when it comes to creating a meaningful caption that evokes some emotion  in a reader looking at the photo), you’ll know that it’s not easy to do.  Unless you caption pictures in your spare time for fun, this activity should be difficult because it’s so unlike the things we are asked to do on a daily basis.  It forces you to stretch your mind (in a good way). 

How to Create Captions for Photos

For a caption to be a good one, it must adhere to a few simple rules:

  • It must be relevant
  • It must be brief
  • It must evoke emotion

Relevance and brevity are fairly straightforward to understand.  But what does “evoke emotion” mean?  It means , basically, that the words of the caption call to the reader’s mind (if not heart) some feeling.  For example, if you wanted to focus on the isolation depicted in a photo of a single tree in a field, you could caption the photo: ‘The ones looked up to by all are often times the most alone,’ or ‘One is truly the loneliest number.’  It really doesn’t matter what emotion you choose – any is a viable focus for a moving caption. 

I Can Has Cheezburger, home of the famous Lolcats, is a site that focuses almost exclusively on humorous captions.  I love this site because of how much the captions crack me up most of the time.  I like this site so much I usually have it open on the overhead projector as students come in to class because it sets up an enjoyable, fun tone for the rest of the class period.  On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Demotivators are sarcastic, angst-filled captions that point out many of life’s ironies. 

Don’t think that you have to actually go through with physically captioning whatever picture you’ve chosen for this exercise.  Unless you’re a Photoshop guru, it’s too much trouble to do and unnecessary for reaping the benefits of the exercise.  Just do what I do in class with my students: I choose an uncaptioned photo (usually from the Lol Builder) and ask for suggestions on what to write IF I were going to caption the photo to be funny, sad, etc.

Every time you come across a picture in a magazine or a blog, just take a moment to stop and ask yourself what you’d write as a caption – then move on without actually captioning it.  The more you engage your brain in this kind of thinking, the easier it will be to approach problems and situations from several different view points. 

As to why this exercise is worth doing… Isn’t innovative, multi-angled thinking the kind of thinking that’s valued in today’s marketplace?


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