Is A Picture Really Worth A Thousand Words?

photos and quotes in photography

We say a picture alone is worth a thousand words, but is it?

Looking at a photo of a moth, we may or may not react, having perhaps already seen many pictures of moths. However, if we add a quote to the picture, the result changes.

By adding a quote to a picture, it becomes less ambiguous. A photograph, below, that seems initially to be only about a pelican, becomes more about the process of photography when a quote about work is added:

photos and quotes in photography

NPR’s Scott Simon noted that it might not be true at all that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Perhaps it depends on our attention and interests. Some of us skip quotes entirely.

Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Laureate, once wrote that “a word is worth a thousand pictures.” Pictures and words can augment each other and each becomes more than either alone.

Communicating ideas is more effective when pictures and text work together. Combine word and image, and we amplify ideas for our viewers.

Text alone tends to be processed by short term memory systems. Most of us do not read all the text on a web page; on average you and I will read only 28% of the words on this page. In contrast, images get our attention. They stay in our long term visual memory structures.

Through a highly complex brain process, a wave of photons is split into two main systems that try to answer: “What?” and “Where?”When some text and a picture combine, the ‘what’ and ‘where’ meanings of the image have a better chance of being recalled and referenced.

Each of us processes differently. Our individual human brains process visuals much faster than text. Put simply, roughly half our brain structures, are devoted directly or indirectly to orchestrating the symphony of visual experience. Also, the vast majority of information we take in and process is visual.

In the larger world of culture and art, countries have even devoted entire buildings to the word and the image. For example, in San Salvador, El Salvador, the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen, the Museum of the Word and the Image, was founded Venezuelan journalist Carlos Consalvi to preserve the history of the Salvadoran civil war. In the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, there is a Word & Image Department with 2 million items including photographs curated by Martin Barnes. We collect and archive pictures and words to preserve our art, history, culture, and photography.

Since our brain makes a pattern of what a picture means and from whence it came, if these ‘what’ and ‘where’ references are absent, we add our own personal meaning and invent a story for the image. Just as our brain compensates for lack of information in the visual field (and fills in visual blanks by making stuff up) we create stories for photographs to enhance and complete their meaning.

When we put quotes into photographs, the resulting collision expands the meaning of the whole because text and image together create a new Gestalt. The combined ‘picture/word’ whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

photos and quotes in photography jim austin jimages

Quotes provide structure for a picture story. When I teach photo students, I find a relevant quote. Then, I ask students to make a photograph that harmonizes with it. Like the Maya Angelou quote for the picture above is different than the kids, the quote does not have to exactly match the subject.

I could go on here with more, but it might be wiser to shorten sail.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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