Does a Picture Really Tell a Thousand Words?


‘A picture speaks a thousand words’, or so we’re told.

Here’s my trouble. I am both a former English literature student and a photography-lover; both an avid reader and an avid viewer; a person with a love of text but an equal love for picture. In short, I’m obsessed with both the word and the image. And I can’t settle my mind as to which is my preference, or the more powerful.

Further difficulty arises when you place the dilemma in the context of a society which (I believe) honours the image as the superior medium.

An example of the situation forces time to turn back a few years to my first year at University. Studying for an English degree – books covering my tiny room, constant visits made to the library, chats about literature in dusty seminar rooms whose walls were covered in classics – for the first time in my life, my entire attention was given to the reading, the love of and the study of books. No science or maths were allowed to interrupt. Instead, metaphors, similes and Wordsworth were the order of the day.

However, still I craved the image. Halfway through first term, deep in the midst of modules covering Shakespeare and medieval literature, I caved and chose to spend the majority of one student loan instalment on a huge and ridiculously heavy coffee-table book plastered in Tim Walker photography. Ethereal images covered each crevice of the pages – it remains one of the most beautiful things in my possession. Likewise, my purchasing of fashion magazines increased tenfold – aiding a need to rip out abundant photography and plaster my tiny walls with Testino, Knight or Bailey.

The moral: in a degree overcome by words, appetite for the image increased.

This is understandable. I know the image is powerful. Society constantly invests in the very power of the image – advertising, fashion and marketing all covet it. Images make a much bigger, brighter, more immediate impact. They have the ability to catch a person’s eye, to take a breath away. They evoke an emotion and create an effect.

As such, words have become a little obsolete. If used in advertising, they serve only to provide something short, sharp and snappy – to create something that works with the image, and complement the picture. They are rarely used for their own worth.

But the ‘slowness of words’ is their very beauty. The time it takes to read a passage of text is always time well spent. They say ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ but, for me, a page of words has the ability to create entire scenes – a living breathing landscape. Whether Bronte’s moors or Dickens’s Victorian London, Chaucer’s journey or Woolf’s unrelenting stream of consciousness – people, lives, entire worlds are created by the positioning of a series of words thrown together by a clever author.

Indeed, a photograph will always remain static. However powerful its impact, however blown away we are by the latest advertisement or silky fashion shoot, it will always fall short against the epic landscapes and imaginations conjured by a passage of powerful prose.

By Hannah Astil


One thought on “Does a Picture Really Tell a Thousand Words?

  1. What a Brilliant, thought provoking article,as a person who prefers images rather than words, it has inspired me to want to read more. Bring on the classics…..

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