In 1862 the Russian novelist and playwright, Ivan S. Turgenev, wrote in his book, Fathers and Sons “The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book.” Today the same sentiment is expressed as ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’.
And it’s true. A picture can be so complex, rich and full of information that is it worth pages of words. It’s also true that without words or with the wrong words, some pictures can be misinterpreted and misunderstood.
This was brought into focus during the UK Brexit campaigns when the UKIP Party licensed an image taken by Jeff Mitchell of mainly Syrian refugees at the Slovenian border waiting for trains to eventually take them to Austria. However, the image was hijacked and used to suggest that the queues of people were on their way to the UK.
Used with integrity, images and text can work well together and strengthen the story.
I think of images and words as layering. As a photographer I think of the words I can use to add a descriptive or contextual layer to the visual storytelling. As a writer, I think in terms of pictures, always wanting to reduce text and replace with images where possible.
For me the words and images go hand-in-hand, which means that as a photographer working on a commissioning editor or a journalist I want to understand the angle, the objectives, the story that needs to be told. As such I was surprised to read that Walker Evans, when asked to photograph for a book about Cuba, apparently took no interest in the text and had little contact with the writer. To me this seems insane; two powerful channels of communication could so easily have told very different stories.
This is why it’s so important for photographers working on assignments to understand how the images will be used to amplify and enhance the text.
The photographer and author Guilio Saggin has written ‘When I began deconstructing photos I realised they were visual stories structured in the same way as written stories. As photographers, we do such things as ‘finding an angle’, ‘adding a human element’ and ‘using exciting copy’… the parallels are many.’
The problem for photographers is that journalists, editors and copywriters can access millions of images from numerous online libraries so when they commission a photographer they want something they can’t buy for a few pounds online (as UKIP did) which means taking an interest in their work and what they want to achieve.
Our job as photographers, in this instance, is to support them and use our skills to help them tell the story they want to tell.