is a picture worth a thousand words?

Sarah Hill

Funny You Should Ask: Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Funny You Should Ask

This is The Big Idea’s reoccurring segment where we ask some of our top professors from across the University of Houston to weigh in on a truism or idiom – a safe place for them to rant, wax poetic or dazzle us with their clever take on age-old adages.

First, a photographer…

As most photographers can confirm, when people say a picture is worth a thousand words, they certainly aren’t talking about financial value. I know plenty of photographers who would say their work isn’t valued, but that’s true for most of the writers I know, too.

I’ve always taken the saying to mean that photos convey a lot of information — details of time and place, the “objective reality” captured by the camera, the dozens of associations an image mobilizes. A photo has the power to instantly trigger an emotional response, but to describe all we find in an image would require a lot of words, including some of the ones in the previous sentence, which, let’s be honest, wouldn’t be worth posting on Instagram.

A photographer might make a thousand photos to get just one they are satisfied with. Multiply those photos each by a thousand words, and we’re doing the equivalent of more writing than just about any other field. I have hard drives filled with terabytes of photos, but they still take up less space than the books on my shelves.

I’ve only had about 200 words here to make my case. Maybe one-fifth of a photo would have done just as well.

Keliy Anderson-Staley is a UH associate professor of photography and digital media. Perhaps she sees life just a little differently due to the fact she, in her own words, “grew up in a off-grid log cabin in northern Maine — with no electricity, phone or indoor plumbing.” When not lending her unique artistic vision to her UH students, she can be found in her home near the bayou, crafting with her five and six year-old children.

The math expert says…

This seems like such a simple statement, but it can lead to bitter disagreements between scientists (perhaps this says more about academics than about pictures and words, but let’s forget about this for now.) Some mathematicians working on the most abstract questions seem to be visual thinkers (for instance, logician Hugh Woodin and Fields medalist Maryam Mirzakhani).

Others who work on much more concrete problems have told me that “An equation is worth a thousand pictures,” and will work hard to avoid including a figure in their work.

I often think in pictures, and sketching helps me get ideas. But those doodles then need to be translated into mathematics and code, and eventually into explanations. If I am lucky, a few of these sketches will translate to a thousand words in a publication.  

Pictures are worth more than words in talks and informal conversations, however. Too often, we see slides overburdened with text that put half the audience to sleep. Some of the best presenters can get away with slides containing only figures. So, in the end it goes both ways: A picture can be worth a thousand words. But a few words and symbols can also be worth many pictures.

Krešimir Josić, UH professor of mathematics, specializes in the theory of deterministic and stochastic dynamical systems to problems in neuroscience, systems biology and evolution. When he is not scribbling equations, he stays busy off-road biking and playing classical guitar (rarely at the same time, he says!)

The Picture v. The Thousand Words

At the kitchen table in Kansas, where most of the family action took place, my sister the psychologist casually mentioned that she never thought in words but only in images. I literally could not envision it.

Words, for me, are the world. For many years my nervous habit was to “type” the sentences others were speaking to me, my fingers tapping along in thin air. I am one of those people who ALWAYS prefers the book to the movie, which is to say: the words over the moving picture.

Character is action, says Aristotle (I think), but I like knowing the inside dirt on that action, the many many explanations that any character cares to summon up, the stories he tells himself, the justifications and convoluted or rational logic, not to mention magical thinking and long-standing feudal grudges, that result, finally and perhaps epiphanically, in action. But before action, the thought. The words. All thousand of them.

Antonya Nelson, UH professor of creative writing has published nine books of fiction and was the recipient of the Rea Award for Short Fiction, a 2000-2001 NEA Grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Missouri Review once referred to her as a “master of the domestic genre” – which might not come as a surprise to her partner and colleague, Robert Boswell, a professor who also teaches in the creative writing program.