Do Pictures Always Need to Speak a Thousand Words?

Do Pictures Always Need to Speak a Thousand Words?

Is it perhaps too simplistic to assume that photography should always be approached through the age-old saying "picture is worth a thousand words"? Or is it maybe a field that is more multifaceted than that?

For some time, I held an opinion that images, or my images in particular, should be able to convey the message I intend to send to the viewer, even if the message is to ask questions about what is portrayed or what the story is behind the photograph. And generally, I have come across a similar view in camera clubs, where appeasing to judges is more important than straying away from the norm and creating something different, something more complex. However, I have also begun to notice that there are moments where a one-off image cannot express enough of what I want to tell the world, in which case, written text comes to help. 

The way I see it, there are two extreme ends: those who are convinced that each image should always be able to tell the viewer what the photographer meant with their image or what the underlying story is, and those who create work that is so obscure or deeply personal that text is necessary for viewers to even begin to relate to what they are seeing or what they "should" be seeing. 

I believe that there is a common ground somewhere in the middle where photography is an important part to help us visualize a certain idea, theme, or project, but where text is also necessary to accompany it. This comes into practice through projects or collections of images, where images on their own would be able to stand their ground, whether from an artistically pleasing or technically acceptable viewpoint, but the addition of text fully completes the photographer's concept. Furthermore, it ensures that the concept is not misunderstood or warped to wrongly fit other people's narratives.

For example, photojournalist Christina de Middel, during her three-year-long documentary project about a prostitute, Paula P., realized that she couldn't truly portray the judgment that Paula experienced from others towards her and prostitution, so she "decided to take the book and change the narrative of the story by using verses from the Bible." She also added other images that had been taken outside of the project to further "convey the oppressive nature of other people’s views on her life." If you were to take single images from her project, they might not necessarily make sense by themselves, or they wouldn't be able to send a strong enough message as they do by being in a collective that is accompanied with words that emphasize what the message is all about. You can see de Middel's project on her website.

Similarly, I created a visual book for my family where I documented the garage and shed that my late grandfather was working in throughout every summer. After his passing, my family had left most of the things in the same place as they used to be. Although the images on their own would mean something to my family and not so much to anyone else they chose to share the book with, I also search for a suitable long poem. The piece of poetry I chose spoke about being on the road and finally returning back home, because that is exactly what I wanted to emphasize with this work. My grandfather's legacy lays in the family he helped to bring up and who we all are today, and his spirit will not be forgotten even if his favorite tools, pair of glasses, or that unfinished plan of the house will be eventually discarded.

A laminated old identity card

An old house plan attached to the wall.

An old pair of glasses next to metal tins.

To conclude, I believe that photography is a field that can be utilized creatively in so many ways. Whether you include text or not and whether you add any other elements to it, you have so many ways to decide on how you want to deliver your message. I think the current social media climate has often overinflated the importance of having that one-off image that strongly stands on its own, but if we choose to follow our own path, social media or not, we are the only ones to decide how we want to portray our work and be satisfied with it. 

Log in or register to post comments

15 Comments

Robert Montgomery's picture

It was drilled into my brain in Art School 38 years ago," that your work have to convey or tell a story with out words to be considered a picture . Anything else is just a snapshot .." What I found out was that when I went out to make that grand loud statement, more often than not it was mute. I think that pictures can be snapshots, and snapshots can be pictures. Sometimes the image with the faintest voice. Can convey a story as loud as thunder.

Timothy Roper's picture

I think at its best, photography is more akin to poetry than storytelling. And that may sound trite, but I've given it many, many hours of thought, and "story" just isn't *fully* possible with one image, or even a few images. Yes, it can convey a little story, but other media do it better. So if you really want to tell a story, use one of those. Pure emotion is how a great photo resonates, and in a unique way.

Robert Montgomery's picture

I disagree. I submit Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother', Huynh Cong Ut 'Napalm Girl', and the simplicity of Buzz Aldrin's 'Earth Rise" Apollo 11. 1 shot each, no words spoken, volumes said clearly.

Timothy Roper's picture

Robert, photos I know very well, but Kim Phúc running and burned from Napalm I have thought about--and discussed--a lot on this very topic. You can't really tell, just from the photo, what's happening. You can *feel* her terror, but that's about it. You'd have to already know the backstory from other sources in order to know the story. Things like, what Napalm is, and what was going on around her. You can't even assume it's during a war. Maybe she's running from a riot where Molotov cocktails were thrown. Or maybe it was a terrorist attack? Or maybe it's from the Chinese invasion of 1979? And there's no way at all you could know from just the photo that it was South Vietnamese forces who dropped the Napalm (I think some like to assume it was the Americans). As for the meaning, is it a picture of the price we have to pay for defeating the evil? Or is it a picture of an unjust war that America "lost?" Who knows; you'd have to read about it elsewhere to find out the story. It's a great picture that helped change history, and Nick Ut is a fantastic photographer (who did get her medical help). But that doesn't mean it, by itself, tells much of a story.

Robert Montgomery's picture

I respect your opinion, lets agree to disagree .

Cristian Chelaru's picture

If I'm telling you now the words fire, or bird, or death, or music, I'm sure that your brain immediately make the connection with a memory or create a story. Make the exercise with one word and I'm sure you will be able to see or create your own story. Now look at the picture from this article.

Timothy Roper's picture

Yes, exactly. But that's more in the realm of poetry than storytelling (although there is certainly overlap). You could even have a short poem that read, "Fire. Bird. Death." You couldn't have a story with that, though.

Timothy Gasper's picture

However many words a picture says to anyone is just that.

Robert Montgomery's picture

My feelings exactly . Like Picasso once said when questioned. Some people see handlebars and a bicycle seat. I see A Bull.

Cristian Chelaru's picture

Again you are confusing like here https://fstoppers.com/comment/556240 It is the imagination and creativity and subjectivity... Man initially I didn't want to comment and I prefer a dislike but you still didn't figure out after 38 years?

Robert Montgomery's picture

I am so happy that you have everything figured out for everyone . And it is obviously in your vast experiences you have never seen Picasso's The Bull.

Deleted Account's picture

It is perfectly OK for a photograph simply to be a pretty picture.

Anete Lusina's picture

That's exactly a part of my point, some images are designed to be just that and some aren't, it's important to recognise why you're choosing which ever way of shooting and displaying your work.

Deleted Account's picture

Apparently someone thinks that is not OK. I feel very sorry for Mr Kenessy.

Amin Motin's picture

Words themselves can be misunderstood, or badly used, or capable of multiple meanings. Take the word "sick" - if a photo is "sick" is it good or bad? Depends who uses the word. For me a good caption to a photo (or a story accompanying it) can sometimes add to the photo, but boy sometimes it can take away from the photo as well.

I find that a great photo can provoke a visceral reaction with or without text. It might even provoke a reaction opposite to what the text suggests. I saw an example of an old street photo recently that had text suggesting the main subject showed resilience and fearlessness. Without the words the photo showed me a subject who looked discomfited and scared. I wasn't there so I don't know if I'm right or the photographer was. Either way there is a level of ambiguity that more words would probably not eradicate.

Sometimes a single word - or photo - is enough to convey a message. Sometimes it really isn't. Seems to me that some people use text and captions to make up for what's missing in a photo. Too much salt in a recipe doesn't really make up for a badly cooked meal, does it?