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The power of pictures

By Tim Middleton

“The face that launched a thousand ships” was none other than that of Helen of Troy, as she was the reason that the Greeks fought the Trojans for over 10 years. We are led to believe, therefore, that this lady must have had considerable beauty and influence to motivate whole countries to go to war. It sets the mind boggling (certainly men’s minds) imagining what she looked like, all the more so when the Greek poet Homer described her in his poem ‘The Iliad’ simply as “white-armed, long robed and richly tressed”. Ancient Greek paintings show her as a brunette but the various films or television mini-series made about her depict her as a blonde — Rossana Podestà played the lead role in the 1956 film version; Diane Kruger played the part of Helen in the 2004 film ‘Troy’, starring, among others, Brad Pitt, while Sienna Guillory was the title character in the less well-known 2003 television mini-series ‘Helen of Troy’. How should we picture her? Does it really matter?

It might well matter based on the old adage that “A picture is worth a thousand words” which underlines the power and ability that there is in pictures to convey a huge amount. Advertisers have certainly picked up on this point and use pictures far more than words, following the lead of Fred R. Barnard who initiated the use of images on billboards and buses. Such pictures have clearly launched a thousand advertising campaigns and businesses. Pictures have power.

It brings to mind a lovely story related by the inspiring educationist Sir Ken Robinson who told the story of a Primary school teacher walking around her classroom looking at the drawings her pupils were working on. She stopped at one child and said, “That’s a lovely drawing – but what are you drawing?” The young child was very quick to reply, “I’m drawing God!” Without wishing to disappoint her young pupil the teacher quietly said, “But no-one knows what God looks like.” Without any hesitation, the little girl confidently asserted, “They will do when I have finished”.

In one of his shows Trevor Noah amusingly draws our attention to how cell phones are “robbing” us and are in effect causing us to devolve back into our ‘caveman’ world instead of evolving into greater beings, as he likens modern man’s constant use of emojis to caveman’s paintings. Not only do we not use words in our messages, preferring instead to let emojis convey our thoughts, so we use photos on facebook and Instagram to tell our stories instead of words. What is with words, then?

If a picture really is worth a thousand words, then the constant stream of selfies that people generate must be telling us volumes. It is also telling us that either we cannot express in words our thoughts and feelings or we are too lazy to do so. The problem is that pictures can be misinterpreted; what one person sees in a picture, another person may not. Pictures can also be confusing; many of us will have seen the picture which depicts two heads looking at each other or a candlestick — how we view that picture reveals a lot about us as well. They certainly have great power so maybe then Art as a subject should have a greater place in our curriculum, so that children can learn to use pictures more effectively.

However, we need to remember that we can also paint a picture by using words. The use of parables is a wonderful example of that, where we tell a story as an example of the point we want to make. Then, too, a novel tells a story with a message to be gained. Speakers make a point and give an example to help listeners see and understand. Words can equally be pictures.

Should we read a book before seeing the film based on it or see the film before we read the book? If we do the former, the picture we have of the characters may not be the same as the way they are presented in the film version but if we follow the latter approach we will be lazy and simply ‘see’ the characters as they were portrayed in the film. So, here is a thought: is it better to use words to describe a picture or to use a picture to describe words?

Words must have it. We need to learn to use words. Do we want to produce children that can only speak in pictures? Will they have the same impact as someone’s face or picture? If so, should this newspaper simply be a collection of pictures and we let readers draw their own conclusions? And finally, what picture might we have shown to take the place of the 804 words used in this article?

  • Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS. 
  • email: ceo@atschisz.co.zw
  • website:www.atschisz

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