IMAGERY OVER IMAGES: A case for words in a world dominated by pictures

Source: Ghana | Dr Michael Osei Agyapong | (
Date: 7th-april-2017 Time:  11:41:07 am

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The eye is a deep well which traps light. The ear is a long tunnel which guides sound. The former sees the world and makes images of it through which we perceive reality. The latter offers the sense of hearing, it brings the world to us through sounds, and by it we are reminded that reality is audible as well as it is colourful. Then there is the brain, the integration centre that takes it all in and makes perception possible. These are, however, only two of our senses. Let us not forget what the nose can do, the skin and the tongue too. And these are just but the traditional five. Our perception of reality is richer by the combination of these senses.

In 1997, J. K. Rowling published the first of her beloved series of Harry Potter books. In these books, she offered us a version of reality and invited us to partake in it. Each time we read her pages, we were absorbed into the reality of the wizarding world, not through our eyes only, even though our eyes do the reading, but through every sense of our bodies. For when Harry Potter shouted “Expelliarmus,” I heard it in my ears, when he smelled the putrid scent of the Inferi, I smelled it through my nostrils, when his scar burnt in the presence of Voldemort, I felt mine hurt and each meal of Mrs Weasley tasted great in my mouth too. 

Reading involves the use of the eyes, but every incredible reading experience takes captive all our senses and therein lies the power of words. Words communicate meaning so deeply that, whether we perceive it exclusively through our eyes by reading or through our ears by listening or through our fingers by braille-reading, each of our senses is at one point or another borrowed into the fray. The creation of words as conduits to carry language, is at once the bedrock of our humanness, the meshwork into which our complicated relationship as interconnected individuals in society is woven.

That words could be carried from one person to another over distances and generations, that important words could be said and remain said, that meaning could be delivered again and again through the same set of rich words without having to depend on the unreliability of memory, that truth will not be distorted by serial transfer was the absolute necessity that words found representation in symbols and got written or in recent times, recorded.

In all of this, what is most important, is that the intended meaning is transferred from one person to another in the same volume without losses. Are words a reliable vehicle for transporting meaning? Are words enough?  If words are carried across on the sheet to the recipient, without the presence of the communicator to add modulations and emotion, are they enough, or do they sieve meaning out along the way? Can a man trust himself to say what he actually means through the conduit of words?

With the advent of phones came emojis. These little icons convey emotion along with our chats to ensure that meaning is preserved. As new emojis are loaded into our social media platforms on each update, we add a vote to the inadequacy of words or otherwise our inability to use words to the highest level of effectiveness.

Words come in tribes of language. The expansiveness of a language and how effective it can be used to communicate will depend on the wealth of words the language accommodates. In essence, the more diverse words a language contains, the better it is for communication. If a thing, or philosophy or phenomenon is not named in a language, then we might equally be ignorant of it. Whatever is not named lacks universal existence. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein understood this well. He wrote: “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

It is important then to communicate in the right medium to wholly experience life. In walks pictures. The first pictures were only formed on the retina. We saw the first images in our minds and probably in dreams. In time, we carved into stones, then painted on canvasses. Images could carry our stories. Images would communicate. Imagine, what it meant when photography commercially arrived in 1839. Moments could be captured as lasting mementos in pictures. We could communicate a thousand words in one shot.

We do that on a daily basis now. We Snapchat our whereabouts, or Instagram our waking-up face. We would rather enjoy the secondary experience of an occasion through a video we shot, than simply enjoy it fresh without the distractions of our cameras. We would rather choose the glare of an image than the seeming dullness of words. Easier the click and the flash than the writing of a thousand words. After all, pictures don’t come in languages. Pictures are not limited in the exactness of their communication of meaning. A picture is a single, defined focus at which the communicator and the recipient completely unite around meaning.

In the final analysis, the battle between words and pictures is won by words. In communicating through words, meaning can be diminished, yes, the message is limited by language, yes, words might be inadequate to say exactly what is meant, yes. However, when used rightly, words have the unique ability to go beyond delivering a fixed meaning to expanding meaning.  A picture is convinced of itself, but words on the soil of our minds are growing, evolving and flourishing.  A picture is cast in stone, frozen in the moment, as it were, but words can unite the present, past and future and still remain in forward continuity. Words allow the mind to exercise its capacity of expansibility and to develop its amorphous quality into untold possibilities. Yes, words do that. They trigger the imagination. A picture captures life, words breathe life.

When a wordsmith meets a photographer. The photographer will deliver an image, but the wordsmith will serve imagery. Show a picture to a trio, and each might well see the same thing. Show a piece of poetry to the same three and vistas of meaning will be painted on the canvass of their minds.

When God described his son, he called him the Word. He chose well.

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