Saturday, August 26, 2006

Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

There is an interesting story in the Washington Post by Susan D. Moeller noting the power photographs can have in moving public opinion. She sites specifically the Iwo Jima photograph which may be the most important war photograph ever. Ms Moeller notes that the image communicated that the US was winning the Pacific War at a time when the outcome was still, I believe, in doubt. The photographer, Joe Rosenthal, notes that 'World War II was the "good war.' And Americans were the liberators." A feel good picture for a feel good war, a war we had to win.

During the Vietnam War, there was a powerful photograph of a child who had torn off her burning clothes in the aftermath of a napalm attack in Saigon that may have had more influence than any 1,000 words I heard or read on the war. I talked to a veteran of that war who spent something like nine months at the border between North and South Vietnam, living in muddy trenches, about napalm being routinely used to drive back North Vietnamese trying to break through their lines. I asked if dieing from napalm burns was as horrible way to die as I imagined it was and he said, "Yes." He, of course, actually saw it happen. We worry about the effects of chemical weapons but no one worries about the use of napalm which is probably as bad as any chemical weapon. Napalm was the weapon of choice, along with grenades, in clearing out bunkers on South Pacific islands inhabited by Japanese soldiers. Bit I digress. The Pulitzer Prize winning Vietnam photo mentioned above was a feel bad picture of a feel bad war.

It is interesting to look at how it is that photographs have meaning. If you go back to my Blog on The Meaning of "Meaning," you will see that I make a crucial distinction between conventional meaning (literal meaning, more or less) and utterance significance, which is fundamentally dependant on context. We can say, for instance, that the utterance "Can you pass the salt?" has a conventional meaning in which it is an interrogative sentence for which, if taken literally, a "Yes" or "No" answer would be appropriate but would normally be used at a dinner table to request the salt. As such it has the significance of communicating a speaker desire that the addressee hand the salt to the speaker. In certain respects conventional meaning requires some reference to context -- who the referent of "you" is in that question/request would depend on context. Utterance significance depends on context in a much more fundamental way. This is also true of pictures. If you saw the Vietnam War photograph without knowing when or where or why it was taken, you would see horrified people running but would have no idea why the child has no clothes on and what sort of impact it might have had on viewers when it was published. For that you need context.

Photographs have something akin to conventional sentence meanings though there is no theory about how one should go about assigning a conventional meaning to a photograph. Any photograph can be thought of as a representation of some state of affairs (think "re-presentation of what was visible to the eye"). Had a reporter seen that state of affairs he or she might have described it verbally and this would be a verbal re-presentation of the visible state of affairs. It would take a very gifted writer to create a description that would match either of the photographs mentioned here in its impact.

The impact of a photograph is analogous to the significance of an utterance. The difference lies in the fact that there is no accepted theory of photograph interpretation analogous to the theories that have been proposed for how we interpret utterances. This is normally not an important consideration. Members of a family might sit around a bunch of family photos and talk about them in some informal way. No one ever says things like "Hey, you aren't supposed to interpret a photograph that way." There is no accepted way of interpreting photographs. Indeed, there is a very interesting description of the Thematic Apperception Test I suggest you may want to read in which psychiatrists or psychologists and others show photographs to people and ask them to describe what they are seeing. There wouldn't be such a test if people didn't differ a great deal in how they interpret photographs depending on their mental states or in the case of "normal" people on such factors as gender or race or culture.

There is one domain in which "objective" photographic interpretation becomes important and that is the law. Forensic photography is a critical aspect of crime detection because officers normally don't keep a crime scene open for repeat visits for very long and in some cases photographs can reveal things that the eye can't see, as when infrared photographs are used to document gunshot residue. Ultimately, what the detectives end up with is a bunch of photographs to study, the crime scene having long since been cleaned up. In this domain, methods of photographic interpretation become important. Naturally, of course, when a case goes to trial, the defense expert will tend to interpret the photographic evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant (without necessarily lying or obfuscating the facts) and the prosecution expert will offer the most incriminating interpretation of what the photograph shows.

Photographs are different from other sorts of graphic objects such as paintings, logos, and jewelry of various sorts. We think we know what a cross hanging from someone's neck "means" or what a swastika pin or tattoo "means" though the fact is that the "meanings" of such things can vary culturally. This is particularly true of the swastika. In some cases, when we see a piece of jewelry that is abstract in the way a swastika pin is, we suspect it has some significance. On CNN, the afternoon anchor said she ran across a guy wearing a pendant that she assumed had some significance but when she asked the guy what it meant he brushed her off. That afternoon she had a journalist on the show who had done research on "boy love" and "girl love" paedophiles and showed images of the "boy love" and "girl love" pendants paedophiles sometimes wear to communicate to others of their kind that they would welcome meeting them. The guy was wearing the "boy love" pendant.

So, I conclude this rambling post by saying that "No," a picture is not worth a thousand words both because but we can't really say what exact words would be equivalent to a picture and because in many cases no amount of words could have the impact of a picture. Indeed, I think poetry exists in part because ordinary language is inadequate to communicate feelings, emotions, and other important things. Indeed, we have coined the word "ineffable" for just such things.

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Blogger Le vent fripon said...

I think it's also interesting how words are sometimes worth quite a bit more than their denotations. For example, the word gentleman, for many, evokes Victorian England. If I see the word napalm, the Vietnam War immediately springs to mind.

But back to the theme of the blog: War pictures have enormous emotional impact. The media's choice to show certain pictures and not show others might prove to have an overwhelming effect on civilian support for the war.

It seems that the European media is quite full of very explicit war pictures: mutilated bodies of soldiers from both sides and such. There is much more of this than in the American media. Sometimes I have the feeling that if on the evening news in America such pictures were shown, support for any war would decrease dramatically.

7:19 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Your comment reminds me of an issue of Life Magazine, a prominent magazine of my day, that printed the photos of every American soldier killed that week or month. I believe it had a decisive effect on the minds of many readers. Quite compelling.

9:32 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Nice. You commented on photography and on law, my two favorite subjects. Too bad you handled the issues well without much disagreement from my own positions, or I would have more to say.

Your comments don't apply to fine art photography at all, unless you're comparing them to poetry. In that case, I'll take the photos any day (I hate poetry, as a rule). I am also a (completely amateur) fiction writer, so I know that 1000 words is about 4 pages of typewritten material, and I'd say that's about an accurate comparison.

Even if you wanted to go with some kind of "meaning" (take whichever sense is most appropriate) to a more journalistically-oriented photograph, then it's still worth 1,000 words. You could easily use that many words simply describing the children in the napalm photo.

I think there might be some kind of mathematical correlation hiding in the discussion of war photographs and public opinion. The more photographs you show of the dead and injured, the more negative will be public opinion. The more photographs you show of your own soldiers, the more positive will be public opinion (unless of course you show them doing horrible things, which is probably a very rare thing although it does happen).

12:31 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those interested in genuine debate and discussion, please note that due to blatant censorship I have now activated my own blog, which will not be censored incidenatlly, if your tired of being told when you can and cannot read what I have to say in response to LG's views, then do visit and have your say.

Should I have ocassion to comment upon anything LG posts here, my comments will appear in my blog which anyone may post on without fear of being barred, let the intellect be the decider not the ego.

My topic is that of censorinng blogs and LG you are welcome to comment, I will not be deleting your posts Sir, nor those of your faithful follower "Kelly" who it seems wholeheartedly supports censoring dissent, somewaht unsettling for a student of law.



PS: Should you elect to delete even this harmless post,I will contact every one on your blog that has ever posted and notify them myself.

8:36 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if you will be censored by LG for being insulting and derogatory?

You will not pogress very far in the legal profession if this is the way you would choose to express yourself in a courtroom Kelly, no matter how frustrated you may be or feel.

I suggest you learn how to convey your feelings logically and with precision and clarity, "retard" is unimpressive for an man who claims to be educated.


6:43 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

& I thought my blog was a circus. JeeZ

9:32 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You never seem to run out of subjects to write about. However I would request if you ever get a chance to comment on the following:

A few years ago I adopted a dog and, as a first-time owner, I did quite a bit of reading about dogs. The chapter on dog intelligence of this particular book had a chart of different breeds starting with the smartest and ending with the dumbest (The Afghan hound is supposed to be pretty thick). My question is: if it is ok to say that one breed is better than other in a certain field (ie. intelligence, harsh weather conditions, water, etc) why is it not right to have similar type of distinctions about human races. Most races seem to have their strenghts and weaknesses, however it is not politically correct to comment on them, except if you bash the white race. A few days ago there was a big problem about a person that said that blacks cannot swim. A few years ago there was a movie "White men can't jump" that was very successful and played all over the country. To the best of my knowledge, no racial issue was addressed at that moment.

Thank you Sir.

10:18 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Hugh, I am not frustrated in the slightest, nor was I at any time in my interactions with you. You keep saying you're going to leave. Leave already.

Thanks for the tip, by the way. I didn't realize that LG's blog was not the same forum as a courtroom and that I would need to conduct myself in a different way depending on the context. I usually speak out loud in an "outside voice" when I'm in a movie theater and wear workout clothes to church, also.

In addition, I thought I made it quite clear, in a logical and clear way, why I think you're a retard. The word just sums it up quite well, I think.

11:02 AM


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