‘A picture is always more powerful than mere words.’ What is your view?
by Steven Ooi
In this age of multimedia and high-speed Internet, we are bombarded by images more than ever before. With the advent of the digital camera and even camera phones, anyone can be a shutterbug anywhere, anytime. The buzz on the Internet today is largely over visual excitement such as blogs and Facebook pages bursting with photographs and the video-sharing website Youtube, rather than the brilliance of text. It would appear that the old saying, “A picture paints a thousand words” is more strongly accepted than ever, in the 21st century. However, it is my view that a picture is certainly not always more powerful than words. The power of words remains keenly felt in the world today and is often much more potent than any picture, or even moving pictures such as films, in many cases. Hence a picture is certainly not always more powerful than words.
Even in a world overcrowded by pictures and videos, many of the world’s most popular products today remain text-based. Think about best-selling novels like the Harry Potter series, which has sold more than 400 million copies and been translated into 63 languages, or personal improvement books such as Jack Welch’s ‘Winning’, which has sold more than two million copies. One would be hard-pressed to think of any photo compilations that have sold more than a million copies. To be sure, films are very marketable too and attract millions of viewers, but it should be noted that films contain words as well as pictures. Films owe their impact to both; few people today would watch a silent movie.
There is no doubt that many images have captured the imagination of humanity, and have been greatly celebrated throughout the ages. The Mona Lisa, with her subtle smile, is regarded as one of the greatest works of mankind. There have also been photographs that are believed to have changed the course of history because of their tremendous emotional impact. A classic example would be the photograph of a group of American soldiers planting their flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima during World War Two. That picture was published in newspapers all over America the following day and gave a war-weary American public renewed belief that the war could be won.
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However, pictures are not always more powerful than words. Let us first examine the written word. For more than four centuries, the world has been enthralled by the words of William Shakespeare. In ‘As You Like It’, he wrote, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.” His captivating metaphor of life as a play, and all human beings as actors, has transcended centuries and ages, and become immortalized in the English language. Shakespeare’s words are studied much more around the world today than the works of any painter. His oeuvre has made far more impact and moved more people than that of any painter or photographer.
The power of words also reverberates in many momentous speeches through history. Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963 is studied by students even today and long after his untimely demise, the inspiration and majesty of his words still move and uplift people today. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream,” he expounded, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
His dream came true, and in no small part due to the power of his words. There was no picture that could have resonated in the hearts and minds of Americans and championed the cause of racial equality as resoundingly and powerfully as the words of Dr King.
Words have also launched other great historical events, such as the words of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their ‘Communist Manifesto’, which inspired millions of workers to rise up against capitalists; the words of Hitler, which engendered such deep hatred in his people as to drive them to genocide; and the words of Mahatma Gandhi, which galvanized and enlightened Indians to seek change through non-violent means. Few if any pictures have possessed the power to inspire or incite millions of people into action in such momentous ways, to change the course of history.
Most people would certainly be able to recall more famous words than famous images.
In conclusion, a picture is certainly not always more powerful than words. It would seem that pictures are in general, overrated, and words, underrated. Perhaps it is because the sense of sight is a more immediate faculty than the mental, emotional and spiritual processes that are triggered by the reception of words. The impatience of the modern age also makes people reluctant to take the greater time that one needs to appreciate a book and much more inclined to seek the instant gratification of a picture. However, a more thorough examination of the issue, as this essay has sought to do, clearly demonstrates that words are in general, actually more influential and powerful than pictures. As a wise person once said, “A careless word may kindle strife, a cruel word may wreck a life, a timely word may lessen stress, a loving word may heal and bless.”
Copyright 2011 Steven Ooi
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The blogger, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor at the age of 42.
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