A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Our community suffered a great loss earlier this week with the unexpected passing of Joe Brauberger. Joe was a generous man and gifted photographer who taught courses not only at Lawrence but also at Ozarks Tech Community College. He loved all things photography and was quite gifted at helping others master their cameras. Joe was also the man behind the website/blog Thousand Word Photography. Today, I think it’s apropos to talk about those proverbial thousand words, the ones a picture is said to be worth.

Since sensory things are processed in the front of the brain, and visual things are processed in the back, I find it interesting that a photograph can trigger both visual and sensory experiences. For example, I have this photograph from a horribly hot Ozarks summer when I was a little kid, and it always triggers a memory of the sound of cicadas buzzing. It’s like I can hear those bugs when I see that photograph. To me, it’s like looking at the sound of the sun. Come to think of it, I can also taste the chlorine and exactly remember the sensation of sweat trickling down my forehead after I dried off from swimming. That’s what a photograph can do.

Recently a customer brought in a very large panoramic landscape shot in sepia. Its scale was impressive, but there wasn’t anything that really stood out about the subject matter. No pretty sky. No interesting architecture. No unusual shadows or lighting or curious events. Just a really wide photograph of a town that could be anywhere. The customer was so excited to have it matted and framed.

sepia toned panoramic of a city landscape

“This is a turn-of-the-century photo of my hometown,” she explained. “It’s a ghost town now, and I know it’s not much to look at, but here is where I went to high school, and here is the old county courthouse where I fell down the steps and skinned my knees, and here is the hotel that burned down when I was a kid, the one where Teddy Roosevelt once stayed. And over here is the Hanging Tree. Oh, I used to get a shiver down my spine when we drove by that thing!”

And there it was, her thousand words captured in an image. She did a literal shiver when she pointed at the tree. She cringed when she talked about her skinned knees. I asked her if she’d ever written something out to describe what was in the photograph. She looked at me like I was nuts. Of course she hadn’t. The photograph was for her own pleasure, a thing that with one look could conjure pages and pages of stories in her mind. The whole point was that she didn’t need to write them down. She felt them when she looked at the photograph.

My wish for anyone who picks up a camera is that you will find ways to tell your own stories with that camera—who you are, where you came from, what you find beautiful, where you’ve been, what matters to you in life. It’s the great pleasure of photography, telling tales without saying a word. I’m talking about images that are packed with words, that will light up your whole brain when you look at them later. What will your thousands of words be?

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