A picture’s worth…

December 24, 2007 — 1 Comment

Question: What is wrong with this picture?


Sunlight peeks gently through the swaying tree branches that stand bearing leaves of various autumnal shades. The air is not too cool, but exceedingly crisp; the breeze is slightly brisk but not yet constant enough to necessitate wearing any more than the standard black gym shorts, light hoodie with hood up, and of course, flip-flops. Forty thousand gallons of water circulate in a contained enclosure of stained and faded aquamarine tinted concrete like plaster. Walking up the steps towards the deck, I am greeted by two bronze elephants, who guard the south entrance to this monumental pool, their tusks brilliant and menacing despite their owner’s eighteen inches of vertically challenged height. They face one another perpendicular to the length of the pool, and tangent to the rising sun off to the far left end of the pool, which still lies in the shade; but in the elephants domain the morning sun reveals the clarity of water chemistry evident of a fairly high chlorine level. In the vividness of the 8am light, every leaf, no matter how miniscule is evident under my watchful eyes as the pole glides effortlessly through this rather infantile cerulean sea. The water as bitterly cold as it is, is enticing in the light cast on it, and the miniature waves cresting towards the stairs of elephantine origin make the water almost seem playful on this particular morning. Colors literally jump off the objects that they appear to inhabit; a spectacle that further deceives the eyes into believing that color is something more than light reflecting off matter in differing wavelengths. This it seems, it just an example of what it is like to see with new eyes, to behold something as banal as a swimming pool with a fresh perspective.


Answer: Nothing, unless it would be a problem that the aforementioned picture would have been taken four days before Christmas in north Dallas on a confusing day that fits more in early October than late December.


What about this one?


The city of Atlanta lies limitless on the ground below. In the total darkness that is a perfectly clear December evening, almost every visible light for at least ten miles in each direction is visible from 30,000 feet above ground. This Delta connecting flight, a veritable tic-tac with wings, complete with a crew of 3 and occupancy of 48, heads roughly due north towards both the north Georgia mountains and the enchanting Smokies of eastern Tennessee. Here however, the land is seemingly featureless, just a sea of lights glowing below the silver streak hurtling through the sky at some 400 miles an hour. Visibility at night is given a new meaning by the glowing full moon rising in the East. Hovering slightly above the trajectory of the plane, the moon reflects perfectly off the body of the jet onto the ground below, illuminating even the slightest body of water or other flat surface. One ceases to attempt to determine the nature of the angles or even the physics involved but merely stares out the window at the ground below as unknown pockets of water on the ground below become illuminated in a flash of silver as the plane passes over them. Can anyone else see this spectacle, or is it an immaculate measure of common grace to behold the wonder of creation reflecting glory back to the Creator from both the night sky and the Georgia ground below? Much like a thunderstorm at night, a full moon and a skyline take on additional magnificence courtesy of a different perspective.


Again, nothing is discernibly wrong on either account. The interesting point I suppose is that both of these descriptions are roughly 250 words in length. The real question is, could a picture have communicated more than a 250 word description? In a less than detailed account, was enough information given for you to “see” what I saw? If I had taken a picture in both instances, would ¼ of the picture been equivalent to my description?


What I am trying to say may be rather evident at this point, but the intent is to expose the lie that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Hopefully the above in some way illuminates the principle, that in no way does a picture ever outweigh the ability to describe and communicate using words. Words may fail at times to really communicate, but this rarely the fault of the words themselves, but merely the failure of the communicator to use them properly. Sometimes indeed emotion overwhelms one’s ability to articulate what is happening inside one’s heart and head. But the means are not to blame for the intensity of feeling experienced. A disjointed relationship between heart and head and can cause this rupture between the soul and synapse, but a journey into a new psychology of man is not necessarily the point of this particular essay.


Much of what is said here is spring boarding off of a book written by Os Guinness entitled “Fit Bodies, Fat Minds.” Commenting on the decline of pictures into images disconnected from the objects they portray, he quotes famed author Isaac Asimov who said “If someone tried to tell you a picture is worth a thousand words, don’t you believe them.” Atheist though he was, he is in no way immune to the perception of a valuable truth to everyone who is interested in thinking more coherently about the nature of society today and human interaction and understanding. In seems in some way now, preeminence is given to communication through images, as if somehow they can communicate anything objectively from image capturer to image beholder. To be sure, pictures and images can communicate something from one person to the next; however, the message is still understood through means of words, whatever the actual language may be.


Even further, images have no real ability to convey abstract ideas or feelings. The example Guinness uses is that of Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be or not to be” (which itself is yet another question). Developing his thoughts on the pros and cons of suicide takes him roughly 260 words. Again, is this equivalent to a ¼ of a picture of someone about to make a long incision slicing veins from forearm to wrist? Or even a postured thinker with shotgun in hand and mouth ajar? Or young girl, with pensive, anguished face and white-capped orange bottle in one hand, holding a slender bottle with alcohol of choice in the other?


Could the passion that two young lovers feel on the eve of consummation be captured with anything other than words? Could the love they still feel fifty years later to the day be any less necessary to declare verbally? Could the sickness of a young romantic being jilted by the focus of his desire find any other truer outlet than in words? Could the uncertainty of the admired be expressed to the pursuant in an image, detailed and creative though it may be?


Although in some sense it is improper to make points by means of questioning the reader, for dramatic effect at least it can be a useful literary device in an essay of this nature, though not so much in a term paper or a thesis. In case you are not completely tracking with the flow of thought, the seemingly obvious answer to all the above questions in my mind is “no.” While this is my position in writing this, hopefully somewhat of a fruitful dialogue may open up, but if nothing else, I have endeavored to underscore the importance of words and their thoughtful use in human communication, specifically as it comes to emotions and abstract thought. Sometimes it is better to see a picture, or an image of something, especially for visually oriented people. However, it should not be thought that the richness of well used words can be drowned out by a carefully crafted and captured image. The power of and necessity of the written word is slowly fading in the rise of handicapped thinking permeating the modern world. In order to be able to articulate oneself clearly, and present beliefs and convictions accurately, one must foster the ability to use words to their full potential, written or orally. It should never be said, “those are only words…” but should be understood that those are words, and they have a meaning and an ability to communicate that is incalculable in value.


Hopefully this has not been too “wordy” or worse pretentiously pedantic. This essay has been brewing, as it were, for several days now, and in the comfy chair here at Starbucks after a Christmas Eve open seemed the best time to finally put pen to page, or more accurately finger to key. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” a rather true statement of reality in many cases. However, in case of hand to hand combat, I would in that case defer to the sword. But for matters of the heart, as well as the mind, the pen is the vehicle that carries the impact the farthest, from the closeness of any one soul to God, or the vast distance of one soul to another. Words it seems, are the wisest choice to narrow the gap.


In the beginning was the Word…


In Him was life, and this life was the light of mankind…


Now this Word became flesh and took up residence among us…


This it seems was what Christmas is really all about, I hope all who read this have a very merry one indeed.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

One response to A picture’s worth…

  1. hmmm….i was under the impression that the answer to all questions is ‘yes.’

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