Words vs Images

Ali Eteraz, in his post The War on Wordsmiths sees the increasing use of images as an assault on Wordsmiths: the poets, the short story writers, the memoirists, the novelists, the journalists. He fears that the image will replace the written word as the main form of communication in our technological world. But the war that he sees is of his own making:

Many of us express our sorrow, our resentment, our rage, by polemicizing against anything that leads to the death of the word. …we are engaged in a war (one that we are losing) to prevent the death of the word.

Images have been with us from the very beginning, as Eteraz himself states. But language, and specifically the written word, developed because the inherent limits of images could not express the overall richness of our human experience. When the first movies, without sound, appeared on the scene, it was very soon denounced as still-born. The moving images were actually found to be not communication very well on their own. It was only when sound (words and music) were added that it became an effective medium of communication. But to this very day movies are still no contest to actually lived experience. It simply does not contain the richness that all our senses provide us with.

The still image is even much less capable of providing a meaningful experience. It is without sound, movement, smell and taste. Seeing a picture of a girl in Afghanistan can at most evoke a glimmer of emotion in the viewer. But if the accompanying word do not tell us what it is about, it remains a shallow emotional experience. That picture can actually be very misleading without more information – it could be the daughter of a rich Taliban leader who is crying about her broken doll, rather than a distraught child who has lost her whole family in a bomb attack. And even if we were told that it is the later, the picture cannot evoke the same experience in us as a written report could.

The written word still has the power of description that images lack. Reading a description, by a competent Wordsmith, of Grandma baking apple tart in the farm kitchen can evoke in us all the smells of apples, cinnamon, butter, dough and lavender wafting in through the window. We can see the slanting light through the window falling on the sink, and through the door we can see Grandpa on the veranda, sitting in his favourite wicker reading the paper. As the Wordsmith describes her taking the baking tray from the oven we can already taste the yummyness. But most of all we can hear Grandma’s ruminations in her mind as she remembers an incident from long ago which wrinkles her face with a happy smile.

A picture of the same scene, posted on Instagram or Facebook, would give us only a fraction of the experience we got from reading about it. We would see a nice picture, for a moment remembering Grandma with fondness, maybe even fleetingly wonder how she is doing, and that would be the end of it. No smells, sounds, no tastes, no Grandpa on the stoep, no lavender outside the kitchen window. A very denuded experience indeed.

Ali, and many others, are fighting an imaginary war. Firstly, it is a very natural process of change that is happening. Nothing in this world stays the same forever. Secondly, if we are willing and able to embrace the change we can contribute positively to the dynamics of our situation by fostering a cooperation between the players, rather than fighting a war. The written word is very powerful. The graven image can be quite effective in communicating because it engages our primary sense, the visual. Put the two together and magic may be possible.


Ali Eteraz is the author of  Children of Dust.

Ali Eteraz