Is a picture really worth a thousand words?

150tobiePhotographers are strange people. They see the world through a lens, try to 'capture' it instead of experiencing it. In fact, capturing it is their way of experiencing it, like trophy hunters on the plains of the Serengeti. Yup, got that, let's go!

And then they tell you about it.

They don't just show you the pic, they say something about it. They tell you about the circumstances of the pic, what they were thinking, what is important, what they wanted to capture. It's not enough for the picture to tell it's own story, the fabled thousand words, they have to add their own story on top. In short, they tell you what the picture is. They define the reality that they captured for you.

If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, it takes another hundred, or more, to communicate whatever the experience was they tried to capture.

And once we have been told what to expect, our own experiences rarely measure up to the purity of the photographer's vision. Maybe it's because we see reality, instead of looking through the artist's lens we have to rely on our on senses?


For example, consider the Grand Canyon. We have all seen pictures of it, taken by professional photographers eager to communicate the immensity of it, the grandeur, etc. And when we actually visit the place, we don't really experience it. We just mentally compare it to the picture we already had in our minds, and then move on.

Compare yourself to García López de Cárdenas, sent in 1540 to find the Colorado River, and having absolutely no idea what you are going to see. Imagine the thrill, the amazement of seeing this incredible sight appear at your feet after a 20-day march. This is discovery, this is experience, and looking at it through a glass lens can only take away from the glory of it.

Do you really think that any photograph can capture this? I don't. That's why photographers have to introduce their work. They're compensating for the inadequacies of the medium they have chosen, by telling the story. The words are the experience, and the picture is just a prop to aid them. Without a story as context, it's nothing.

The only thing a photograph can do is prepare the next traveller, give them a set of expectations which reduce the impact of the real-world experience. A visit to the Grand Canyon is an exercise in confirmation. "Yes, it's as big as I thought, but maybe not as beautiful as it was on the day that pro photographer with lots of expensive kit caught the morning light just right for the advertising, with the help of photoshop." Been there, seen it, done that, bought the T-shirt.

And the action of taking the photograph, seeing the world through a lens, reduces the experience by imposing the limitations of the media up on it. It takes the photographers focus away from the experience, puts the emphasis on the story you're going to tell, rather than just enjoying it. Instead of an explorer, an adventurer, you become someone who discards everything that can't be captured, reduces everything to pixels on a screen, never truly sees the Grand Canyon.

Is this healthy? I think not.