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Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

No doubt it is. But which thousand words? That depends on the context of the picture, and on the background assumptions we bring to bear in interpreting it. From Vietnam to Rodney King to Abu Ghraib to post-Katrina New Orleans, many political controversies in the television age have hinged on the question of how one ought to interpret certain vivid and startling images. Yet such images are sometimes appealed to as though they decisively settled things one way or another, all by themselves. "I know what I saw."

Well, maybe you do and maybe you don’t. The meaning of an image is not self-intimating. A still shot from Marathon Man will prompt memories of a horrific torture scene in the minds of those who have seen the movie, while someone who hasn’t seen it might assume it to be nothing more unusual than a photo of a dentist getting ready to fill a cavity. A person who is told that it is a torture scene but not told that it only happened in a movie might experience disgust and outrage upon seeing it. By contrast, someone who worked on the set while the film was being made might see it and laugh, remembering how many takes it took to get the scene right. Whether we “know what we saw,�? and whether we are justified in drawing the conclusions from it that we are inclined to draw, depends on whether we genuinely know, and don’t merely assume, that we understand the circumstances from which the image derived.

This is a point that has some important philosophical implications, one of them being that meaning – the meaning of linguistic expressions and of thoughts, for example – cannot plausibly be explained in terms of the notion of picturing, since something’s counting as a picture, and as a picture of this rather than of that, itself presupposes meaning, or at least the presence of a perceiver capable of grasping meaning. A picture is a picture only for a conscious subject who takes it to be a picture, and to be a picture having a certain content. This seems to be part of what led the later Wittgenstein to abandon the picture theory of meaning developed in his early Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and part of what has led philosophers in general to regard picture theories of meaning in general as hopeless. (See chapter 1 of Tim Crane’s The Mechanical Mind for a lucid overview of the issue.) As my examples indicate, it also has clear relevance to issues of everyday moral and political concern.

But these reflections were not prompted by any particular political controversy, including any of the ones mentioned above. I have nothing to say about any of them here other than that it is (as I’m sure every reader of a philosophical blog like this one, whatever his or her political persuasion, would agree) important to know the full context of such images before one draws sweeping moral or political conclusions. Rather, these reflections were prompted by something closer to my Marathon Man example. Over the last week or so, there seems to have been a buzz of sorts around the Internet about a hilarious movie trailer called “The Shining Redux.�? (Hat tip to The Corner.) It’s a clever re-editing of some scenes from the Stanley Kubrick thriller The Shining, which makes the movie seem like a heart-warming light comedy about a father bonding with his son.

Anyone who’s seen The Shining knows that it is anything but that. Yet the scenes are so skillfully edited that even some that the knowledgeable viewer remembers as having been highly disturbing in the original come across as comedic or touching. My three-year-old son, who caught me cackling over the trailer, seems to like the cheery Peter Gabriel soundtrack they’ve put over the (now) equally cheery images and wants to watch it over and over. Of course, he has no idea why it’s so funny (or why there’s no way in hell I’d let him watch the original movie!). In themselves, you might say, the images are neither funny nor disturbing. Their significance derives from their context.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, take a look – if not for the philosophical lesson, then at least for a good laugh.



Thanks for the links. The Shining so terrified me I almost couldn't bring myself to look at the photos. Anyway, I did and they were hilarious.

About Abu Ghraib. I had a negative reaction to the photos as did most people (I hope) but this reaction paled in comparison to the reaction I had to the description of the events catalogued in Danner's Torture and Truth. I wonder whether you or others had a similar reaction?

A related issue: Thomas Sowell opines (I can't remember in which book) that the photographic medium of most news reporting now favors broadly liberal or left-wing causes because it allows the pulling-the-heart-strings stuff to be done with so much vivid effect. His idea seems to be that the "forgotten man" who is going to have to pay for the programs proposed is less picturesque than, say, the starving child, so our attachment to visual imagery to shape our politics will tend to skew our politics leftward.

I'm not sure that this is true. I've thought about it a lot. I think it's more in the decision of the reporter. For example, you could make a very vivid (even visually) report about some guy whose business/farm/whatever had been ruined by government regulation. Or if someone was being dehydrated to death, it would make a very unpleasant picture, and showing that picture would tend to demoralize advocates of terminal dehydration. And so forth. *In some cases,* I think Sowell may be right, and these come particularly when we can get a very heart-wrenching visual portrayal of someone's sad plight followed by an appeal to use government money to help him. But those aren't the only sorts of issues that divide left and right.

I did laugh a lot. Nice post, especially about the importance of context. I like to reframe the title and ask, "How much is a thousand words worth?"

Talking about pictures and skillful editing:
This came over the blog a few days ago:

Anatomy of a Photograph

It shows how a cleverly edited photo, taken out of context, carries an entirely different story that what actually happened.

The mind always,or almost always,takes the easy way out. Someone once said that Man is born to read,alas,but he seems also to have been born to look at pictures,the purely visual over the creaking machinery of the mind. Locke said "the body must be made slave to the mind". Tough order Mr Locke.

I do think we need to distinguish two claims:

1) Pictures can be doctored or selectively edited so that they genuinely confuse the viewer about what really happened in the physical world. Therefore, we need to be cautious about accepting uncritically the prima facie appearance of a photo or film.

2) Even when all parties are agreed as to the literal accuracy of a film or photo, it is illegitimate to present disturbing visual images in a moral debate, because such images confuse intellectual judgment by arousing the emotions.

It seems to me that 1 is obviously true but that 2 is probably false. I think that sometimes disturbing visual images can clarify intellectual judgment by cutting through cant, euphemism, and misdirection in moral debate.