The relationship between words and images

While every aspect of art is unique and strong in equal measure, imagery portrays a strong way of communicating messages. Perhaps the strength of photography is due to the fact that there are no words and the interpretation is left to the observer. Nevertheless, the relationship between words and images is wide and diverse. In simple terms, images are used to communicate words and words are used to interpret images. One cannot be said to be more important than the other because they are all dependent on each other. Berger (pp. 7) asserts that there is a sense in which words are preceded by seeing.

Despite there being a continuous relationship between words and images, there is a gap between what is read and what is seen. Indeed, this gap is occasioned by the fact the mind possesses a preconceived thinking about what the person sees. This is to say that the mind already knows something about the image that it sees and this tends to reflect in the things that the mind chooses to either see or even read.

It is not surprising that people may cast their eyes only on one object within an image and even go at depths to try and put what they see in words. This even as the image may be containing a diverse collection of individuals. The identified object in the image could be a queen or someone of striking beauty such that people may not look away. The concentration of the observer on such an object could be driven by the fact that they have a prior definition of beauty.

The manner in which things are portrayed in the eyes is dependent on prior beliefs and knowledge about such occurrences. The preconceived beliefs and information forms some kind of bias within the minds forcing the same to be identified in the images before the eyes. In this respect, the eyes are always on the lookout to identify that which has already been registered in the minds. It is because of these happenings that people tend to identify certain features within images portraying a specific occurrence. For instance, an image showing the flow of river is analyzed for water dwelling animals such as fishes. It may then occur that no other feature is identifiable in the observer’s eyes in the immediate short term other than the fishes in the river. Even when other features become identifiable in the observer’s eyes, they can only be after the fishes have been identified.

All that is seen in the eyes of people is expressed not only in terms of imagery but also in words. There is a strong relationship between what is seen and what one records in their minds to describe the image. In essence, details are better of explored in terms of words thereby giving them a larger insight as opposed to images. For what are images other than “summaries of the words that explain specific situations and occurrences” (Varnum & Christina, pp. 57)? What one sees in an image is involuntarily and unconsciously recorded in words within the minds of the observers. It is for this reason that people tend to detail what they have seen in terms of words and narratives. In addition, words are more effective in storing occurrences than images are.

Whenever one sees an image of something, they may not be able to keep all the objects in the images as photographs. Rather, these occurrences are better off as words that can be referred to any time to retrieve the true and actual occurrences of the time. It is common practice to find captions below photographs and other images even in art. The caption is just a word summary of the objects that may be found in the image presented before the eyes of the observer. In so doing, the artist is aware of the observers’ weakness of interpreting images differently. By providing a caption therefore, the artist influences the spheres within which the observer views the images presented thereby providing a limitation to what is recorded in the eyes of the reader

Words are just one way of accurately recording what has already been seen by the eye. Through the use of words, artists can portray different images to the eyes of the observers even without having to present these images at all. For instance, a writer may describe an occasion in which a king may be addressing his servants in a remote location. Even without providing a physical image of the same, the people reading the literature can form images in their brains depicting the narrative that has been provided by the writer. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the people reading the narratives have a rough idea of how kings behave and the relationship between the kings and their servants. Surprisingly, a reader of the same may be able to draw the image depicting the same narrative and equally portray the same message. This ability is perhaps due to the prior knowledge that the people have about kings and their relationship with servants. In the image, the king may for instance be depicted as having a guard and all other subjects bowing before him. This is clear illustration that images and words are related in unlimited ways.

The relationship between words and images is immense and covers different dimensions relating to art. Any time an observer looks at a photograph, they can identify the reasons why the photographer chose the features in the image from a collection of many others. Ideally, the photographer could have chosen any other location or setting to capture the image but for some reason decided on the image. The photographer has a way of viewing the object and this is reflected in how the image is captured. The same is true for painters who decide to include only certain objects and elements in their paintings. Despite what is portrayed in the images and paintings, the ability of the observer to decipher the message is dependent on what they already know about such settings. Indeed, the observer’s way of seeing is influential in how they depict the images presented and the messages they derive from these images.

In most instances, part of the knowledge about the images presented in photographs is sourced from past literature. This prior knowledge has an active implication on the messages that the observers decipher from the images. It is therefore in order to assert that “the observers are responsible for what they choose to see in images and photographs” (Jaeger, Elena & Adam, pp 45). Although, the observers may not be aware of this influence, it is a form of bias that is well articulated in the choices of objects that they choose to see. Even when the choice of literature read in the past is dependent on other factors such as schools attended, the observers still possess the ability and responsibility of choosing how they view images presented before their eyes.

Images present another form of message communication besides the use of words and depending on the intended audience. For instance, images communicate better when stronger messages are intended and especially when it involves the implications of practicing a certain vice. For instance, the health effects of heavy smoking and drinking or the large scale abuse of drugs is well portrayed in graphical content. This way, people can visualize how their body organs will be affected by the use of harmful drugs and substances. If the same message were to be communicated in words, the gravity of the message would not be understood and this would lead to ignorance on the part of the abusers.

When images are used to portray the harmful effects of the use of drugs, the abusers can visualize themselves undergoing the dangerous changes portrayed in these images and therefore dissuades them from abusing the drugs further. In this way, the images are used to communicate messages that words could not communicate better. This is not to say however that image is better than words and that they present a more informed portrayal of the messages. Rather, it only asserts the fact that images are more appropriate in such instances. The choice of what avenue to use in communicating a certain message is therefore dependent on the scope of the message itself. In addition, the appropriateness of each avenue should be explored before a choice is made to ensure that it is most effective.

Since the beginning of time and even before people learnt how to read and write, drawings were a normal occurrence. This is not to undermine the importance of words or to overemphasize the importance of images and paintings in any way. Rather, it only goes to show the relationship between words and images. Indeed, even when words were nonexistent, images and drawings were used to portray that which needed to be communicated. Images have continually been used as evidence to show how “X had seen Y” (Berger, pp. 10). In fact, no other form of communication matches the importance of images in recording testimonies of events and happenings.

The importance of images is down to the fact that they are more precise and richer compared to such communications as literature. Images and photographs capture only that which is necessary and therefore saves the reader the effort of having to experience unnecessary details of certain happenings. This, the images do even without the need to caption or present write-ups of the same images. In essence, therefore, images are substitutes for words and can be used to communicate testimonies that words cannot. For instance, some situations are better off presented in images because there are no words that can describe the same. Moreover, the ambiguity of certain words makes it difficult to express specific meanings through words alone. The inability of people to distort or change the meanings presented through images also gives them an upper hand in terms of maintaining the intended meaning. While words can be altered or even misconstrued to portray different meanings, images are constant and their change is difficult to initiate.

The link between images and words cannot be limited to the complimentary roles they play in communication. Doing so would be illogical and ignorant of the fact that each of these two is unique in its representation of facts and happenings. Whenever one looks at an image, words describing the image are formed in their minds explaining the happenings portrayed. However, the onset of words is only because they exist in the minds of the observer. Otherwise, the image would have been recorded in its original form as purely an image only expressible through sight. The use of words can only e considered as a different language of communication and cannot therefore substitute the image in its broader sense. This is true because the message in the image would have still been understood even if the observer had no prior knowledge of words.

Clearly, one cannot separate words from images or attempt to depict one in isolation of the other. Words and images are heavily interlinked and it is only through this relationship that communication is done better. In addition, none of the two is more important than the other in terms of their value in communication. In fact, it would be useless to think that one can be entirely effective without the other. The reliance of the two on each other is testament to the fact that none can survive alone; at least not in this age. The relationship of the two is seen in the way people interpret images and how they visualize words thereby enriching each of the two. It turns out that the use of the two to compliment communication is effective in drawing the messages clearly.


Works cited

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 2008. Internet resource.

Jaeger, Stephan, Elena V. Baraban, and Adam Muller. Fighting Words and Images: Representing War Across the Disciplines. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Print.

Varnum, Robin, and Christina T. Gibbons. The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Print.


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