We all know the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But, is it really? I’ve always struggled with the idea of a picture substituting for any number of words. Perhaps a single image can express the emotion or tell a story without words. But, how many photos can really do that? And generally, I think you’d have to be a pretty accomplished photographer to achieve this.
Okay, so I’m not a world-class photographer. Let’s get that out of the way. Maybe if I were, then my photos from my vacations really COULD substitute for a thousand words or even give someone just a hint of what it was like to experience what I did in that moment that I chose to snap said photo.
While on my trip to New Zealand in December, I tried and failed several times to capture on my phone (yes I know, a phone camera is not as good as a real camera) the jaw-dropping beauty and majesty of the natural world I was experiencing. I did get some beautiful photos, ones that captured light and mood and landscape and really showed the beauty of what I was looking at and, in turn, would likely express to the viewer WHY I chose to snap the photo. But, there were times when I just put the phone away and told myself there’s no way I can share visually with someone what I’m witnessing right now, so I’m instead going to give it my full attention and soak it in.
What sort of things am I talking about? Mountains for one. There are lots of mountains to be seen in the Southern Alps which jut upward due to plate tectonic activity on the fault lines that carve through New Zealand. With each photo I took, I sought to share with others and to remind myself in the future of what I witnessed. But, how can you express the sheerness of a cliff face or the steepness of a mountain in a photograph? I certainly couldn’t.
Armed with a few words, I can express to you what I experienced and you could get an understanding about the sharpness of the angles and the vegetation or lack thereof and the temperature and the wind just by me telling (“showing”) you. I could even tell you about the emotions viewing this mountain gave me which may, in turn, stir those same feelings in you as you thought about what I described and then perhaps connected it to something you experienced yourself. You would get a picture in your mind’s eye of what I saw, though it wouldn’t be the same because you weren’t there. A photo would help. But, which is better? A photo or the words?
Those are, perhaps, the wrong questions to ask. Neither is better than the other. And, as I sit here, I am only considering my own perspective and not that of the accomplished photographer who likely feels the same emotions at his/her photos as I feel with my writing. When I look at images, I don’t always feel emotions. But phrases and words and even letters tell me a story about the emotion in a paragraph or scene. So, I suppose it goes with which is better for me (or you) to share with you what I witnessed and experienced in those moments when I would have (or tried to) snap a photo. For me, it is easiest and (I believe) more effective if I share with you what I witnessed with words. For others, it may be most effective if they share with you those same mountains with a photograph.
Sometimes, things happen so fast, you can’t get a photo, or your lens is limited by distances that your eye is not. In this Insta-world of nonstop selfies with people constantly proving “I was there!” and “I exist”, did it even happen if you didn’t get a photo?
It did. Even though I didn’t get a photo, I saw a penguin. One of the little blue ones that are rare and hard to find. We were on a tour boat in Akaroa, keeping our eyes peeled for dolphins when a little white and blue body surfaced on the starboard side and right beside the boat, just to give me, my husband and a woman sitting behind us a quick curious glance before popping back beneath the surface again. He or she was small enough that he would have fit into the palms of my cupped hands and I loved seeing the way the water lapped against him as he stared up at us in those brief moments- two worlds meeting for a just a moment. And, in that moment, I began to think of the surface of the water as an in between place, not just when waves crash on shore, but that place that penguins and dolphins and whales go to catch a breath and we catch a glimpse of them in their glory. If I’d been a sharpshooting photographer, perhaps I could have gotten a photo. But honestly, I’m okay with the fact that I didn’t. I saw a penguin and we shared a moment that few regular, everyday people get to share with wild animals. And, I started to think about the world in a new way.