The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” originates from print culture in the early 20th century, largely from the use of graphics in advertising. The picture provides a quick way of conveying a large amount of information quickly. Paired with a catchy slogan, pictures are an effective means of conveying a message for advertising. I would not, as some people have done, characterize these messages as stories. Instead, they provide a setting in which people are encouraged to create their own stories, often starring themselves. Thus, pictures make for good advertising (and good art, all told), but do not really tell stories.
To me, the adage has always conveyed the problems of description in that the capture the detail a picture would, thousands of words are necessary and yet the finer contours and precise details will still lack. But in storytelling, in description, in characterization, the precise measurements, exact color, and every wrinkle actually detract from the writing. There is a hierarchy of priority. In pictures, those details, omitted for the written version, are of crucial importance, while non-visual cues and traits transcend the physical in a written description. So, if I were to write a entirely true description of a waitress and take a picture of her (being consistent with the inclusion or exclusion of background), which is more accurate?
The answer, of course, is that it depends on the context. Neither is inherently more accurate than the other (omitting the problem of authorial bias), but neither is either one complete.
I reached this discussion by contemplating travel, both past and future. I have thousands of pictures taken from trips in the past and I like most of them. I am glad to have some sort of record of the travels, and, in some cases, plan to use pictures I have taken for classes I will someday teach. I will also necessarily take pictures for later study and (hopefully) for books I will publish–if only to avoid any copyright issues with pictures. At the same time, I am considering leaving my camera behind the next time I travel. I would take a pen and write about what I see, but, mostly, just emphasize spending more time at each spot and living in the moment rather than focusing on preserving the image for posterity or the celebrity of having been to a particular spot.
The thought of doing this does put me somewhat ill at ease. I like nice pictures, and I have used pictures I’ve taken on travels during class already. Other pictures decorate my living and work space. At the same time, the last time I traveled abroad it was on a guided tour and almost every single person had out a camera such that it sometimes felt as though we were herded through locations pausing long enough for everyone to take the picture. Now, there were other reasons for haste, and what often happened when I travel alone is that I have my camera with me, hitting spots I want to photograph and see relatively quickly, and then putting away the camera as a walk slowly through an area or have a picnic, or sit in a cafe. This is how I have in the past managed to find some balance, but even that initial rush to take the pictures of things (usually eschewing taking my picture in front of the scene) leaves me feeling vain and hollow.
I guess it comes down to what my purpose is in taking the pictures. I like pictures as art, and they work for teaching, but taking pictures for the purpose of sharing your excursions is, I feel, a slippery slope between a genuine desire to share something with another person, vanity, and bragging about all the exotic locations you could afford to go to. I do want to share my travels and aspects of my life with people, and going back to look at pictures I took years ago does help bring back some details of those trips, but the digital technology that has enabled the taking of so many more pictures has simultaneously devalued each individual picture and caused more time to be spent taking pictures and less time to be spent actually being in a place. I travel for my own benefit, first and foremost, so while I would like to keep some pictures, I would prefer to spend more time in those places I travel, thinking about life and place and less time operating machinery.
The idea behind writing is that writing is a process that takes time, while photography is about capturing a moment. We live in a world of moments, these days, though. Travel that takes an entire day or more is considered lengthy, when, once, that same trip would have taken months. Not everyone lives this way, but it is certainly a first world phenomenon. Combined with Twitter, Facebook, the advent of mobile telephones that supposed to be always close at hand, life moves at incredibly fast speeds, and I, for one, would like to try to slow it down just a little bit.