The eyes see and the mouth speaks but words are blind and photographs mute. This sensory deprivation causes a void in which clear communication becomes difficult. There is a fragile relationship between the two mediums; Dr. Charles Martin of Queen’s College, New York explains in his essay “Visual Arts and the Strain of Words” that the nature of the tension between the two mediums is analogous to the ‘odd couple’ of art — both friendly and helpful, but also antagonistic. Traditionally, it has been said that pictures speak louder than words; however, photographic theorist Susan Sontag questions this view in her book of essays entitled, On Photography. She makes a significant concession: “In fact, words do speak louder than pictures.” The photograph itself is “mute” — subject to the feelings and attitudes of others.
Although photography has traditionally been lauded as the most concise, transparent, and unbiased of the arts, words are, in fact, the more effective communicator. Photography embodies one measure of the ideal — filling the role of the “eye” of documentation: pictures represent clear, visual representations of places never visited, people never seen, and objects never before imagined. This makes them ideal for newspapers and magazines whose purpose is to allow the viewer to “see” events. Photographs thus hold the burden of being expected to represent what is real; seeing is, after all, believing. This burden does not necessarily lie on the back of words; writing is recognized and widely used for its ability to express ideas which are contrary to fact. Despite photography’s widespread use in printed media, photographs are not used as the sole representation of history; photographs are fettered to the written word. From labels and titles in museums to keywords on Tumblr, words effectively explain, qualify, and specify photographs. Words can be skewed or biased; however, a person can explicate something through words in a way that is not possible through photography. A photographer cannot impute meaning into his or her photograph; they can only watch as others project their emotions and experiences onto the work. In other words (words being the normative qualifier), whereas words can solve their own difficulties through greater exegesis, photographs cannot speak for themselves and cannot provide their own context. Wherever there is fear of the subjectivity of photographs, there will always be the hope of words to save them.
Art, in my opinion, serves to form understanding in ways which stretch preconceptions and exercise the imagination. I am particularly fond of a twofold mechanism for communicating understanding through art: the use of words, especially through poetry, and photography. When separated, the reader or viewer gains understanding by injecting his or her own experience into a work; when combined, they come to comprehend a bit more about how the writer or photographer wishes their work to be conveyed.
It is my hope that, in light of the content of my essay, the quotations that correspond to my photographs will help to frame them as I see them, and also to create a new story—one which presents the gift of a new ambiguity—one which contains the possibility for new meaning and understanding.
Photographs by Stacy Burkhalter