The worth of pictures

Everyone has heard the old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It implies the notion that in some cases you can simply show the picture without the need to say anything about it – as no amount of words could possibly convey the essence of the image than the image itself.

For me, this notion sometimes doesn’t make any sense.

I was recently in a photography event where a well-established photographer was supposed to give a talk. I was hoping to hear her talk about her work, but she didn’t. She chose to show her photos on the slides while reading an essay off the paper.

Nothing wrong about this approach, but I don’t think it’s the reason people come to these kinds of events.

If you’re going to read something off the paper, you might save everyone the time by sending the pdf of slides and the text by e-mail.

It’s not even about the content – people want to see you, hear your ideas, your view, your passion, your stories – your authenticity.

And if you’re an artist, then more than anything, they want to learn about your work. That’s what they came to see you after all.

“When shown an object, or given a food, or shown a face, people’s assessment of it – how much they like it, how valuable it is – is deeply affected by what you tell them about it.”

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Kleon brings a great example of a couple of guys who, in order to prove the point and to show how powerful stories attached to objects can be, set out to do an experiment.

Basically, they bought a “bunch of insignificant objects” from flea markets, yard sales and thrift stores for an average of $1.25 apiece. They hired writers to invent a “story” for these items. Then they went to eBay to sell these items that they bought for $128.74.

How much did the make? $3.612.51. Now, granted, they probably had to pay for the writers, but that’s not the point – that you can make a huge profit. The point is that you can drastically change the value of – probably everything – by talking about it.

“Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them.”

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

So, no, your pictures don’t talk for themselves. That’s your job. Everything is your – as the creator’s – job. You create it; you show it; you talk about it and you market it.

What’s is especially cool about photographs, is that you can tell almost any story you want. It doesn’t matter. As Errol Morris has said: “To fake a photograph, all you need to do is change the caption.”

Now, I personally don’t like to caption my photos with anything more than a place and a date. I think if we describe the photo, we ruin the ambiguity and therefore the story the viewer might make up.

This does not contradict the previous as presenting your work and talking about it are separate things. One is the work itself in its whole – including the format, caption and everything else; another thing is talking about the work – how it was made, what I think about it, etc.

Besides, I personally love to make up my own story about the work and then find out more about it by reading on it.

Is it not interesting to first read “Farewell to Arms” and then find out that Hemingway rewrote the ending 39 times before he was satisfied – and then read the different endings? Or to read about how some of the world-famous photos were made and look at all the failed frames?