A Thousand Words?

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” How many times have you heard that saying? The problem with the saying, however, is that one seldom asks the necessary accompanying question: “For what?” I’m not being flippant. The value of any picture lies in its use.

A photo ID is far more valuable than a written description of the ID-bearer. In terms of showing straight “action,” a graphic novel can depict battle scenes in far greater detail than is easily possible in straight prose. But no picture can carry the rhythmic auditory impact of poetry or words set to music, and even pictures set to music have an impact different from words and music. As human beings we remember and re-create songs and lullabies. We don’t and can’t do that in the same way with visual images [unless you’re a professional entertainment sound designer].

Even more important, because words are symbolic as well as literal representations, and because words are the only way we have of expressing and conveying abstract concepts such as idealism, altruism, love, hate, friendship, and so on, words can do far more than pictures in affecting and changing both the course of individual lives and the direction of entire societies.

In terms of the underlying “worth” of various types of entertainment, the old saying of “you get what you pay for” holds true, if in a slightly different context. In general, cinema or graphic novels/manga are more accessible, and more sense-oriented, and if a quick rush of action or romance is what you want, they usually can provide it far more easily and, for most people, far more quickly than can a book. While a paperback book is comparable in cost, it also has a second “cost.” It requires active thought and reader participation, but, for that cost, can often [I won’t say always because there are bad books and bad readers, just as there are bad cinema and bad manga and bad viewers] deliver far more than mere entertainment and can leave you with greater insight or feeling, if not both.

In an overall sense, pictures tend to be “complete” in themselves. There’s little or no stimulus to consider beyond the image presented. That limitation may well have been one of the reasons why nineteenth century art led toward into surrealism, abstractionism, and all the other “non-representationalist” forms, as part of an effort on the part of the artists to engage their viewers beyond the image itself.

By comparison, a single word [except “yes” or “no”] is seldom ever complete, and sentences lead on to more sentences and more meanings and questions, often into the exploration of ideas and concepts. It’s no accident that generally the most advanced and most vital cultures have had languages with the largest vocabularies and greatest complexity in language.

So… just because a picture presents a particular image more completely than words, don’t assume that the picture is necessarily better. It all depends on what’s at stake… and, often, whether you want to look beyond the image.