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From Confucius to the Internet: Pictures Matter


With today's instant interconnectivity via the internet, pictures matter more than ever before.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius once observed that “a picture is worth ten thousand words.” Nearly 2,500 years later, Life magazine reported that, in the US alone, there are 47 million photos taken per day.

If one picture is worth 10,000 words, then 10,000 words multiplied by 47 million photos per day comes to well, you do the math. Suffice it to say, pictures matter.

While this may sound a little oversimplified, how often in our work as photographers— photographers—do we actually stop to consider how our work shapes the public’s views of people and places? How much do we see ourselves as recorders of history, commentators on culture and purveyors of pictures that depict the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly?

To answer these questions, we need to consider how we’ve become a visual society. Photographs matter in every aspect of Life. Photographs are beacons for what we choose to buy, wear and eat. They influence where we decide to travel, what we think about the world and how we react to important social issues.

How pervasive are photos in our Life? Stop reading this for a moment and glance around. Unless you’re in the middle of some remote desert wilderness, chances are there’s a photo within view (not counting this issue of PhotoMedia, of course).

Photography’s prominence as a visual art that matters is rooted in history and culture. Ever since Mathew Brady carried his camera onto Civil War battlefields in order to show the public the horrors of war for the first time, photographs have shaped our opinions and attitudes about the world’s calamities, foibles and wars.

Much later, during the 1950s and ’60s, photo magazines such as Life and Look pro-rated. These publications held up a photographic mirror of Life and society, and taught us about ourselves. The photo essay reached its apex during this period. Ever since then, the complete photo coverage of our world has ensured that just about any recollection replays in the mind’s eye as a series of still frames. Think Marilyn Monroe. Think the Beatles, JFK, Vietnam, Kent State, Apollo astronauts and Saturday Night Fever. Think Sept. 11, 2001. You get the picture.

But pictures that matter are not limited to battlefields, tragedies, politics, cultural phenomena, celebrities or pressing social issues.

For instance, much of what we know about nature, from the depths of the oceans to the highest peaks, is influenced by photographs. When it comes to discovering the remote wilderness, only the most ardent explorer/photographers see these wonders with their own eyes. The rest of us see only the pictures that they bring back.

Since nature photos are often featured in “throwaway” art, such as gift cards and calendars, their importance as photographs that matter is frequently overLooked. Yet these photos have been instrumental in increasing our awareness of, and concern for, the environment.

One of the most important nature photos that mattered wasn’t even taken on Earth, but of Earth. When Apollo 8 returned from space in 1968, the astronauts brought back photos of Earth as seen from lunar orbit. The most famous of those photos is one titled Earthrise, which depicts a blue-and-white marble suspended in a sea of blackness, rising above a colorless moonscape.

Seeing our planet stripped of any recognizable political boundaries, we were powerfully reminded that the Earth is a frail, living organism and that it is all we have. With a single photo, a nascent environmental movement was invigorated on a global scale.

Photographers who do not work in journalistic or documentary styles often take for granted what their day jobs really mean to the way the masses perceive the world. The gamut of photo genres—fashion, sports, portraiture, business, —all matter in their own way beyond their initial commercial intent.

For instance, today’s fashion photography becomes tomorrow’s historical record, one in which children of one generation Look at photos of their grandparents’ generation and snicker at the funny way people dressed and styled their hair.

Now the instantaneous and nearly global reach of the Internet has brought new meaning to how pictures matter. The power to self-publish online has enhanced the ability of people to make connections through photographic storytelling—for both commercial purposes and individual artistic expression—on a scale that could barely have been imagined just 10 years ago.

Within seconds after they’re taken, downloaded photographs can transport us to virtually anywhere in the world and shape our views of distant places, people and events as quickly as the connection to the Net will allow. This means that not only can photographs encourage connections on the Internet, they increasingly can influence change by inspiring action—the kind of direct action that is made possible with a click of the mouse.

There’s no doubt that beyond their aesthetic value, photographs matter in the way we communicate, the way we make connections between people and places and the ways in which we are inspired to take action. When these properties are considered in the context of the Internet as an outlet for photographic communication, we see that we are on the cusp of realizing photography’s ultimate ability to connect and inspire.

And Confucius, if he were alive and pontificating today, would be using his own confucius.com web site to espouse the belief that an online photograph is worth 10,000 click-throughs.

Robert Sparkman
Story Author: Robert Sparkman

Robert Sparkman is president and CEO of Fusionspark Media, producers of One World Journeys, based in Clinton, Wash.

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