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Photos That Say A Thousand Words

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For as long as I can remember I have been told the adage of 'one picture is worth a thousand words'. I grew up thinking it was some ancient and sagely advice doled out over the last few millennia.

But I was, ah, mislead. The earliest reference I can find to that specific wording of the adage is from an advertisement in 1918 in an American newspaper, but earlier similar ones did exist before 1918. In 1911 the adage was 'Use a picture. It's worth a thousand words'. In 1913 the words 'a picture' was replaced with 'one look'.

The belief that a complex idea could be understood quickly when conveyed with just a single image is even seen before the advent of cameras and photography. In 1802 in the The Works of Mr. James Thomson the adage was 'one timely deed is worth ten thousand words'. Whom ever it was that married the word picture with a thousand words slogan is unknown, but widely believed to be American based.

All in all regardless its origins, it has come to mean that a single image can tell the story of a thousand words with just one glance. How can that be so? We each will see a different story with the same picture. Our life experiences, perspectives, beliefs and what we consider important is different with every human. Even two people who experience the same event, at the same time and at the same place will tell different stories of the event.

A picture can tell a story just as well as a large amount of descriptive text can, but in todays day and age, many people would rather not read as much. Because we have to process writing character by character, build the characters into words, then words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs reading is more time-consuming than glancing at a picture and processing it quickly.

Many readers who land on this page will not read this far – too long, too wordy. Today, people want less words and more visuals, they want mixed media, with short descriptions and pictures or even video to tell us the rest – people mostly want mixed media that gives them the jist of the important stuff and pictures to fill in the rest. Is this just pure laziness, a side effect to the Internet or are we as a society evolving to some greater understanding.


Your Brain on Words and Pictures

Not all visual stimuli (words or pictures) are created equal. Some cruise through the neural circuits of the brain and while others are still parked getting ready to fire up.

 Human are thinking creatures. We are always thinking – sometimes we know we are and other times we have no significant awareness that we are thinking. We can think without thinking that we're thinking. An example, you walk up the street sipping coffee and talking with a friend, your brain is processing foot placement, which muscles to move, balance, distance, language and emotions simultaneously. Your juggling ten balls and don't even realize it. Your thinking without thinking that your thinking.

This type of thinking is effortless, simultaneous, autonomous and fast, some call it instinctive-ness, sub conscious thoughts or intuition, but those terms are entirely to vague for science – science calls this automatic thinking without thinking, heuristic. It takes no conscious effort on your part to make this thinking happen.

Phrenological Mind Chart
If I gave you a math problem, lets say 49 X 38. You will know immediately without thinking about it, that this is a math problem, the answer is more than ten and less than a million, this is your heuristic thinking at work.

Now solve it by hand. Leave the answer in comments - no, no just kidding. Did you notice how different the experience of thinking was, how much effort on your part went into thinking, how conscious you were of the fact that you were thinking (or trying to).

Much of your thoughts and thinking happens without you realizing it or knowing it. You can't recognize till after the fact that your brain used heuristic thinking. It is too fast and your consciousness needs time to process and recognize it.

When you read a number of different parts of your brain light up, first you have to look at the letter or word of what you are reading, your visual cortex is firing up and processing the information perceived by the eyes, it then needs to associate the written form with an entry in the mental dictionary or lexicon and finally an area of the brain interprets the entry and gives you the meaning of the word.

When you first look at a picture you brain subconsciously or heuristically processes it, happens within quarter of a second (or less) of your eyes seeing the picture. One glance and your brain processed the image faster than your conscious self was able to think about it.

Levie and Lentz[1] in 1982 looked at 46 studies involving comparisons of text only, picture only and text and picture in regards to learning. Every study with the exception to one showed that including pictures improved memory and comprehension. In one case, a group performed 32% better when they followed illustrated instructions with text compared to the group that used text only or picture only. Granted this was 1982 and internet was not available yet, but I think it is safe to say that one will find similar results if the study was redone again in today's day and age.

Social Media

The world-wide web has changed the way we consume information, and it has changed the way we publish information. Being able to mix medias – text and visuals – has not only given birth to successful companies like Instagram, YouTube and Flickr, it has also been responsible for other shifts in behaviour, such as shopping and how we learn.

Where we once depended on well crafted words to create the visuals, social media has changed that. Originally, social media used pictures as a way to share, some used it to draw readers in and others because it decorated the page. But our brains were not used to mixed media and our cognitive processes started to compete with one another – the heuristic thinking was doing its thing with the pictures while the brain tried to focus on the words.

Eventually this war of attention turned to 'Just the basics please, leave the wordy fluff at the door' and pictures took the place of the wordy fluff. Images, have the unique ability to explain, simplify, or expand concepts in ways that text (and even spoken word) may struggle to explain. Thus the birth of the new wave of information. Snippets of information with pictures that are related to what the words are saying. Problems arise when people use the incorrect image and create a break in the flow of the dual processes.

Brain Cloud

When I look at Facebook, or other social media, I often see a plethora of shared articles and comments that clearly show the article was never read, only the picture was processed and liked - so it was shared. Sometimes it's a flashy photo that has nothing to do with the article content. Sometimes the photo is intended to manipulate the reader. 

Why the issue? If the main message we are sending is through pictures and we use pictures that have nothing to do with article's content, then you are contributing to mis-information. An example would be an article on GMO uses a picture that is the skull and cross-bones, poison bottles or any pictures that indicates danger, deadly or toxic, that picture will affect or manipulate the readers emotional response long before the words hit the brain.

Photos should enhance the words and the story. But it seems that words are getting lost in a sea of pictures. Jeremy Waite, a copywriter, explains that there will always be room for words even in a digital age or a pictorial based age – just need to write with fewer words.

“Copywriters have got a more interesting job nowadays, with he growth of social media. The brands that have the most engagement usually use just one sentence updates. So you've got to get a really good copywriter. Anyone can write a summary paragraph about a new policy or product, very few people can write 140 characters about it.”[4]


Picture Power

Pictures tap into our imaginations and pictures are the language of the mind. We see a picture and our mind translates that image into words or even concepts, we interpret them in ways we are familiar with or that we can understand. Visual imagery has an effect on all aspects of life including our perceptions, behaviour, health and beliefs.

Reading text takes up the bulk of our day whether its news, email or a social media feed. The onslaught of information available to us via the internet has produced a desire to find new ways of absorbing information quickly and efficiently. That's where pictures come in.

“It's physiological more than anything else. We humans, are used to absorbing information graphically. Writing is just a way of finding recognisable graphical representations of information. Photography bypasses characters, crosses boundaries and languages. Great pictures don't need to be explained, that's the power of imagery” Justin Sutcliffe, a professional photographer[4]

It's not to far off to state that photos taken with the right perspective and in the right time can spark a wealth of emotions inside you or it can cause you to re-think something. It does not necessarily matter if the photo is of an issue you are interested in or can relate to. Photos can be used to draw attention to a cause, open the doors to communicating about a difficult social topic or openly attempting to solve the problem. But no matter what you are using imagery for, it needs to be used responsibly and honestly.

This photo of the little girl with magazines and scissors was taken by (Shanea Gaiger) HarpyImages and is found on her deviant art site. It was part of a series she did titled Outside Influences Project, which plays on the stereotypes of how the media affects children, and frankly some of her images are brilliant, controversial and for better or worse are opening up communication on the often times touchy subjects that involve children and the media.

The photo

Little Girls and Body Images
is not designed to tell a story but to invite communication and healthy debate. It touches on the taboo without affronting delicate senses, without stirring up anger and without distracting from the information.

There may be fundamental differences between reading and looking at a picture. The fact that pictures are such a popular medium to 'speak' through does not mean it is more efficient at sharing complex ideas - just that we process images differently and more easily than we do words.

I asked in the beginning of the article how a picture can tell the story of a thousand words, when we all perceive the same events or pictures differently and that no two people will see the same story in a picture.

Stories are more than just one angle or view – this is why 500 people can write about the same topic and not all sound alike. In an age where time is priceless, words are less appreciated for their lack of efficiency and imagery abounds, perhaps the power of imagery is its ability to tell ALL the stories simultaneously by connecting with our heuristic thought patterns and thus connecting with a wider group of people.

Pictures are like music, it's one of the universal languages – it needs no explaining and is understood by all, regardless their written language.



Oct 10, 2014 8:24pm
This is a very thought provoking article. It is interesting how are brain and our thoughts conceive things differently from person to person. We all love pictures I think better than words which reminds me - When our son was little he used to love reading comics and yes I was fooled we thought he was reading them. Wrong, he was only looking at the pictures to understand the story.
We found out later that he was dyslectic and used the pictures because he could not read. The worst thing was that the teachers did not pick this up either.
Oct 11, 2014 8:04am
Thank you for your comment ... and I am sorry your son slipped through the cracks like that. It is always disappointing and an eye opener when those who should be doing their jobs and are trained to spot that kind of thing, don't. I hope he has since 'caught up' or is getting help.

I do enjoy our complicated our brains are and appreciate how little we truly understand of it.
Oct 11, 2014 9:30am
*how complicated
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  1. LAWRENCE J. NAJJAR "Multimedia Information and Learning." University of Montreal. 5/09/2014 <Web >
  2. "A Picture is worth a thousand words." Wikipedia. 5/09/2014 <Web >
  3. Harpy Images "Outside Influences Project." Deviant Art. 5/09/2014 <Web >
  4. "Power Imagery Communication." Simply Communicate. 5/09/2014 <Web >

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