Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Value of 1000 Words

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and you know what? I've always hated that saying. Because it implies that words are a lesser thing. Replaceable. Unnecessary even. And as a Word Nerd I take exception to that.

"But Shannon," you argue, "Doesn't a picture convey information with a single image that would take thousands and thousands of words to explain? Isn't that why it's such a famous saying?"

To which I say...not necessarily. For example, here's a lovely photo from my last vacation:

Sure, you can think it's a pretty picture, and if you've been to Edinburgh you might even recognize this as one of the cliffs near Hollyroodhouse Palace at the end of the Royal Mile. But that's about it. You would have no way of knowing that we stumbled upon this cliff completely by accident and were surprised to see a number of tourists tromping up the side of it. And you would have no idea that we decided to copy them, and soon found ourselves trudging through the slick grass with the cold northern wind biting against the backs of our necks and the scent of heather tickling our noses. Because no picture can describe scents and sensations. Sure, it can give you something pretty to look at. But it can't tell you the story behind it. For that, you need words. Lots of beautiful, descriptive words.

"But Shannon," you argue again. "That's not fair. If you'd chosen a different picture--perhaps one of you climbing the cliff, or maybe one of you at the top--I would have known the story. You stacked your argument unfairly."

To which I say, fine, let's try it your way. Here's one of me at the top:

And yes, you're right, you can tell I climbed to the top from this picture, and my heavy coat and the fact that my hands are in my pockets does suggest the chilly breeze nipping all around me. My slightly disheveled appearance even hints at the grueling climb (though you can't smell the heather...but maybe you don't care about that). But you're still missing most of the story. Because no single picture can tell you that I was sick with a cold that day, but was so captivated by the idea of tromping through the Scottish wild that I drug my husband up that cliff. Just like no picture is going to tell you that he fought me tooth and nail the first half of the journey and then got so caught up in it that when the trail ended and only a few brave people were climbing the impossibly steep rocks to continue on, he was suddenly arguing with me to keep going. Nor is it going to tell you that we went a little higher, but eventually realized we just didn't have the right shoes for the climb (and I was starting to need another dose of cold medicine) so we turned around, at which point we took this photo. And then we made the long, and slightly dangerous climb down, where we both slipped on the rocky path several times and barely made it back without falling. Sorry people, the only way you're going to know that story is if I tell you. And to do that, I have to use words.

So what's my point? Am I trying to convince you that pictures and photos are useless and unnecessary? Certainly not. I just wanted to point out that without words, most pictures fall fairly flat on their faces. And that's the reason why I take exception to that old cliche. It leads people to believe that pictures are more important than words, when really they both need each other. You could never get the whole story from a picture. But pictures still serve their purpose. Thanks to those pictures, I didn't have to waste time describing the green hills, the gray sky, the dark rocks, or the slightly frumpy green and white striped shirt I was wearing. Plus being able to see just how high the cliff really is certainly heightened the stakes of the story. So the words and the pictures needed each other. It's a symbiotic relationship, if you will.

So is a picture worth a thousand words? Probably. But don't throw away your dictionaries yet. If you want the whole story, you better plan on telling it. With words. Wonderful, amazing words.

1 comment:

  1. So so true. I've always felt the same way. Like for example, we were looking at a photo album of a couple in our hall who went to Germany. One pic was of her from the back, standing on some grass next to a sidwalk. I was about to blow right past that pic when they told the story about it. The sister had been complaining about how she was always walking on the street side of the sidewalk and that her husband should be walking on that side. So she finally moved to the inside of the sidewalk and shortly thereafter stepped on dog poo. so the pic was her scraping it off her shoe. Now, I know thats not a beautiful or poetic story by any means. But it was really funny, especially the way they discribed it. Words really did make a big difference. It's a silly story, I know, but I thought I would share it anyway. : )


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