Popular saying declares that a photo is worth a thousand words. But how is it useful if those words are meaningless? How many times have we’ve read articles or books who bring us little to no information? Words, even a thousand of them, can be deceptively useless.
So sure, photos can most of the time describe faster and better than text. But that is not enough. In fact, a description is no more than a statement which, in of itself, offers very little. Most photos we see today are statements: from the millions of “I am here” social media images to the “this is what I ate”, the “this is what I look like” to the “look at what I saw”, it is billions and billions of statements being made every day.Statements are useless because they do not allow us to participate or engage. They are truth, facts, evidence that is closed to any dialogue or further reflection. Platitudes made from confirmation of what we, most of the time, already know. Modern photojournalism is no better. Most photographers approach and deliver by just offering a photo statement. This happened here. The worst offenders must be stock photographers who go out of their way to make their photos dull statements.
And so, we are left to endure a repeated flow of constant affirmative statements, confirmations and obvious evidence. If each image is a thousand words, then it’s a cacophony.
Photographs, in order to reveal their true power, should either be questions or answers. Questions that make you think about possible answers or answers to questions we might have not yet asked. Photos, and the best ones do, should be the beginning of a conversation. Photos should be filling a void, not made of empty space, but unanswered questions. In fact, they should provoke more questions than they answer, forcing viewers into a dialogue with what they see.
If you go back to the photos you love, you will see that each and everyone one of them carried its own set of interrogations, from the common, how did he do that to the more intense, what can I do about it. Every single one. And more than often, they answer questions you didn’t already have. After all, an answer is just a question well formulated.
How many times has an image engaged you into reading an article you wouldn’t have paid any attention to if it wasn’t for the lead photos? How many times has a photograph made you think “what can I do about this?” and wanted make take some type of action? How many times has a photograph make you want to share what you had just learned with your friends, family and strangers? Those are the photograph worth looking at and those are the images that matter.
Rarely, if never, has a commercial stock photo has been the subject of a conversation (besides ridicule). Out of the tens’ of millions of photographs waiting to be purchased on monster sites like Shutterstock or Istock, no-one is answering or asking a question. They just endlessly confirm what we already know, mainly that businessmen will shake hands when they make a deal or that a couple will look happy especially if they are on a beach and are young. Never has a baby picture posted by a friend/family on social media has provoked any questions either, as we all know what a baby looks like ( hint: like any other baby). And never does a picture of a vacation spot makes us feel anything else than perhaps some jealousy or resentment.
It is easy to make assertions and declarations, especially if those fall in the realm of the common. However, it takes talent to translate a scene into a question. But those are the images that we want to see, those that matter.