Picture may be worth 1,000 words, but words will always be needed
Wednesday, March 08, 2017 11:13 AM
The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” has some validity in that a complex idea can be conveyed more effectively in a single image than just text. However, usually, a picture, particularly a photograph, can’t stand on its own without some description.
That’s why newspaper photographs always have a caption, or cutline as we call it in the business. Sometimes photographers try to submit a photo without a cutline, but that isn’t because they think the photo can stand on its own. Often it is laziness because getting the full story takes work — much more than just the snapping of a picture. That’s why the photo goes back with the requirement the photo story be submitted in a complete manner.
Minnesota photographer Doug Ohman, who has been giving presentations at libraries throughout the area, gives a good explanation of why.
“I’m a storyteller, and when I see a picture, it’s a story,” he told a large crowd gathered at the Spring Valley Public Library last week. “How many of you have a shoebox of old black and white photographs that you pull out and get excited about, but if you flip them over, on the back there’s no story? Without ID, the picture has limited value, but if you have the story…my work is not just taking pictures – it’s telling a story.”
Newspapers may not be the same as old photos in a shoebox, but journalism is often called the “first rough draft of history” and newspapers are often used for historical reference, particularly in small towns where community newspapers document routine life events.
It isn’t only photographs that lack any identification, but ones that lack names that may be sent back to the photographer to complete the story. Sometimes, photos come in with a group of people posing for a photographer with the caption, “so and so were present at so and so activity” without listing the individuals posing for a photo.
Now, sometimes large groups of people participating in an activity may not have identification of every individual. The story may be the bustle of children hunting for Easter eggs or some other group taking part in an event, which in itself tells a story about the event. However, if the photographer lines people up for a group portrait, the story is the people in the photograph and they need to be identified.
Although some people in a posed photograph may be recognized by their friends and family, it doesn’t make sense to ask newspaper readers to try to figure out who is in the photo with the people they may know. That’s why newspapers are always tracking down names or refusing photographs without them.
In this revolutionary digital age, it may seem that images are overtaking text, making words less important than ever. However, that isn’t proving to be true.
An article by Paolo Gaudiano in Wired magazine pointed out that more than 80 percent of the activities people do online are still based on text. That makes sense as most of our online activities — social media, email, web searches, news, product reviews — are based on reading. The author thinks that is unlikely to ever change.
Still, there is somewhat of a disconnect between looking at a picture and reading. Our visual system evolved to process images essentially in parallel, noted the Wired article, whereas text, which only appeared a few thousand years ago, requires our visual system to scan individual characters, one at a time, recognize them, and piece them together into words, then sentences, and so on.
In other words, reading is work. That is why the article notes that 92 percent of Google users click on a link on the first page of results: scrolling through long lists of text is hard and time consuming.
Although the article didn’t mention this, that is likely the reason fake news from a con artist can be so effective. People won’t take the effort to read more than the headline and possibly a few sentences of a fabricated story before rushing to share it.
Although text still dominates online and print, photographs are important to a newspaper. Even the Wall Street Journal uses photographs in its edition, although it wasn’t until this century, long after just about every other newspaper featured photographs, that it started.
The thinking was, according to various reports, that the Wall Street Journal is a numbers paper, devoted to covering the financial markets and trends that mold the economy. The text heavy paper had no room, or any real need, it was thought, for images.
Most newspapers were like that in the 1800s because photography was complicated, slow and expensive. A few started running photographs in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that they started showing up regularly in newspapers.
Photographs give a visual appeal to newspapers and they can help tell a story much better than relying totally on text. Still, words are necessary components to the visual photograph.
So, in some ways a picture may be worth a thousand words. However, much as we would like to, we will always need words, or text, to tell a story.
A shoebox full of images with no corresponding information won’t do.