They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but as someone pointed out to me recently—can you draw a picture that effectively communicates that concept? Maybe you’re a good artist and you have an idea of how you could do that well, but I’ve never seen anyone try, and isn’t it interesting that the phrase always comes to us in words, not pictures? The whole point is that pictures are more powerful, but to make that powerful point we use words, not pictures.
There is truth in the phrase, of course. There are times when one picture can speak volumes, communicating in an instant what would take paragraphs of scene-setting explanation in prose. Pictures can deliver an instant emotional gut punch when they show us scenes of a disaster, or they can make our hearts rise with pride and joy at the sight of the tears in the eyes of a victorious athlete. A picture can transport us back to a moment in our own past, or give us a glimpse of someone else’s world. Pictures can do so much. But they can’t do everything.
As powerful as pictures can be, we still need words. Without the words, even the pictures lose their context. Would we care about the iconic “tank man” photo from Tienamin Square if we hadn’t read or heard words about the protest and massacre that day? Would we think the fuzzy “pale blue dot” photo was a mistake without an explanation that we are in the frame? Would we care so much about our favourite athlete without understanding where they came from, who they represent, and what they overcame to achieve their victories? Even our powerful pictures often lose their punch without explanatory words, and there are plenty of times when words can do what pictures simply cannot.
In recent years our electronic communication has become more pictorial with the growing use of emojis and gifs. Has this really helped us communicate more deeply with each other, or has it actually encouraged shallowness? As much as I enjoy a good gif or meme, I would never pretend that they could be a substitute for serious conversation. In our image-driven, soundbite-saturated culture, perhaps what we need more than anything is not another emotionally charged picture, but rather to slow down long enough to think through a thousand words of complex thought. It’s true that pictures and art can contribute powerfully to important conversations about meaningful ideas, but could we really have deep, nuanced conversations with pictures alone? Let’s not be hasty in replacing a thousand words with a picture. Let’s keep both.