The Other Reality

What 1,000 words are they saying?

Posted in Personal reflections, Reactions to Readings by aryckman on October 8, 2008

“Do pictures still speak more than a thousand words?”

I would like to say yes, and I think they do to some extent but the bigger question is what 1,000 words are they saying?  Each person who looks at an image is coming at it with a different perspective and will read something different into it.  I am constantly reminded of this when my dad looks at photographs, or any art for that matter, and gives me his perspective of its meaning.  He has read into some of my photographs things I would never, ever have imagined as being possible interpretations for the images.  It is quite astounding the different reactions or readings a single image may get and can be quite frustrating as an artist.

I’ve been coming across this issue in several of my readings and have decided that it would be nice to give some direct quotes here.

“Words do speak louder than pictures.  Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture’s meaning.

What the moralists are demanding from a photograph is that it do what no photograph can ever do–speak.  The caption is the missing voice, and it is expected to speak for the truth.  But even an entirely accurate caption is only one interpretation, necessarily a limited one, of the photograph to which it is attached.  And the caption glove slips on and off so easily.”  (Sontag, Susan. On Photography. p108-109)

“…the lesson ‘inherent in the authenticity of the photograph’ is in fact the link between the photograph and writing, between photography and the ”prevalence of inscription.’…’The illiteracy of the future,’ someone has said, ‘will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography.’…Will not the inscription become the most important part of the photograph?”” (Cadava, Eduardo. “Words of Light” Diacritics, Vol. 22, No. 2/4. p94)

I am always hesitant to put words of any kind with my photographs.  I don’t even like giving them names and when I do they are as direct as possible–more like descriptions than titles.  I want the viewer to come to the same conclusions I have about an image without having to tell them what they should feel.  It is a rather romantic notion.  And while it is a noble goal it is probably an impossible one to realize since life experiences and therefore interpretations are rarely the same.  This is particularly important when photographs cross cultural boundaries.  Even if one photograph can be understood more or less similarly by a single group of people a foreign culture might read a completely different meaning into it. This makes the context in which an image is shown an important factor when deciding on including words with photographs.

My biggest fear, when it comes to pairing words with images is that the words will overshadow the image– that the image will become an illustration to something else and become incapable of standing on its own. As I mentioned before I want viewers to come to a certain conclusion without having to beat them over the head or spell it out, as it were.  And while this might be acceptable in my own art– a personal conviction that I’ll never change– it might not be a good choice for other types of work.  If you look at advertising a single image without any type could have an infinite number of possible meanings.  A picture of a pretty, smiling girl could be meant to promote a specific perfume, lipstick, eyeshadow, birth control, laxatives, health insurance, education and so on.  Advertising would be completely useless with out words.  Even documentary photography has relied on words to help the viewer understand what they are looking at.  If you want to move people to take a stand on something and act to provide aid in a certain way they need to understand that there is a problem, what it is and where it exists.  Words help give pictures direct meaning.  If something direct is trying to be communicated then words may be necessary.  Words can add an extra level of perceived truthfulness of an image. But as soon as the image is removed from the words its meaning might become ambiguous.

I do not have a formal conclusion here.  I want desperately to believe that photographs do not need me to translate their meaning to viewers.  I like the niave idea that photographs can cross linguistic and cultural barriers and maybe there are a few photographs that can do that but I’m beginning to think that it is more the exception than the rule.

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One Response

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  1. A Randomly Generated Kitten said, on October 8, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Great post. I wish I had more time right now to digest it and understand it as thoroughly as it deserves. But it occurred to me while reading that the whole comparison just doesn’t work…. Saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is like saying “an apple is worth a thousand oranges” when really it doesn’t matter how many oranges you have, how you prepare them, or what seasonings you use, you still will never get them to taste like an apple.


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