Paul Martin Lester
Professor of Communications,
California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and webpage)

Living with Pornography:
An Essay of Exactly 1,000 Words

(c) 2004


If you type, "a picture is worth 1,000 words" in Google, you get about 10,000 hits. That's a little ironic given the history of the phrase.

Fred R. Barnard, an advertising executive in the 1920s for the Street Railways Advertising Company, was trying to convince advertisers in a Printer's Ink ad that pictures get a busy streetcar rider's attention and should be added to their card ads. He included a picture of a boy with a big smile. To add credibility to his argument, a bit of ancient philosophy was added, "CHINESE PROVERB One picture is worth ten thousand words." In other words, a picture of a boy's smile is equal to many words explaining the benefits of baking powder. Over time, of course, it took 9,000 words less to describe a photograph.

But whomever Barnard hired to create the Chinese translation got the proverb a bit wrong. Instead of stating that a picture is worth ten thousand words, the literal translation is, "A Picture's Meaning Can Express Ten Thousand Words."

Worth and meaning are tricky concepts that deserve more attention than the space allotted for this essay. Suffice it to say that worth connotes an objective equivalence while the meaning of something is subjective and often personal. The phony Chinese proverb's objective equivalency between words and pictures is based on a crude, monetary construct. Either one word is equal to 1/1000 of a picture--a slight on words, or one picture is equal to 1000 words--a slight on pictures. But if meaning is the equivalency, words and pictures flow in an ever-evolving elicitation of definition. With the correct interpretation of the proverb, words and pictures live in harmony as they are both used to attain the goal of understanding the meaning of any work that uses them both.

It is, then, no light matter to use words and images together in mass communications for their combination is powerful; they require respect and responsible use. But their power-sharing dance defined by content and context is only one of many frames that a reader uses to evaluate their message. There are also many other schemas from the audience that often are never consciously applied that go beyond size, position, and other editorial concerns to include the past, personal, and supposed narratives of viewers.

Words, as with their visual counterparts, also have iconic components; some words have the force of an unsuspected punch in the gut. Once, saying the names of kings and religious leaders was taboo. Today, racist terms spoken by a caller to a radio show can cost the owners thousands of dollars. It is because of their prohibition that they have the power to shock.

Since the war with Iraq all kinds of images have been added to our mind's eye with some hitting us hard: The American flag over the sculpted face of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the disheveled appearance after the capture of Hussein himself, the mutilated and burned bodies hanging from a bridge in Fallujah, the sickening murder of Nicholas Berg captured on video, and the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US military personnel. But unlike computer hard-drives, we cannot easily erase horrific pictures from war, nor should we.

Torture is a word that conjures immediate mental images from perhaps movies and news accounts. A character in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs cuts off the right ear, covers the eyes with duct tape, and then douses his victim with gasoline. That is torture. It is not abuse. Prison guards hooded, beat, stripped, sexually humiliated, simulated electrocution, and killed their charges. That is beyond torture.

But we would probably never have known of the torture of Iraqi prisoners held at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison if the guards themselves had not taken the pictures--modern-day digital trophies as prized and valued as any scalp from 100 years ago.

Which begs the question: Without pictures, would we have heard of Rodney King, Baylee Almon, or Haider Sabbar Abed al-Abbadi?

Photography did not create infamous news events and neither did words. Before there was photography there were petroglyphs, cave drawings, music, dances, songs, language, architecture, lines in the sand, writing, caricatures, paintings, printing, typography, lithography, engravings, and so on available to tell important and lasting stories. But in today's media scripted convergent environment, images trump words when it comes to sheer emotional power. And because of that pathosian tie, editors run the risk of, in the words of Susan Sontag, contributing to the "pornography of grief."

Photojournalists receive professional and community accolades for photographing others during their worst moments. Whether desperate and inexperienced miners in South America, kids doing tricks to buy crack, a beautiful young woman forever altered by a fiery crash caused by drunk driver, or close-up shots of those shot during battles, depictions of grief neatly framed and sometimes explained is a form of commercialized voyeurism rendering the viewer impotent and useless, and are as objectifying as any pornographic image.

Any extreme expression of speech, anger, physical conflict, eroticism, and photojournalism is pornography. In fact, pornography can include the graphic explicit subordination of people, whether in pictures or in words, in which people are presented as objects in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions voyeuristic to view. Objectification is the result when watching becomes the end desire supplanting other possible verbs--using, engaging, understanding, or preventing.

Photographers have a medium-specific problem with regards to objectification. For no matter how noble and caring are the motivations for telling of another's suffering through the mass communication process, the end result must make an object of that person's plight-a photograph, film, video, or as shown on a street in Tehran, a larger-than-life mural.

Words are easy to replace with new words. But for some images, turning the page, switching channels, or clicking a new link should not be options until their meaning is fully expressed.

That job is not just a role of journalism.

Arrow that returns to writings.

return to writings