Photography Is the Third Language — Use It to Say Something


Most communication is nonverbal. It’s something we’ve all heard many times — ever since that 1967 UCLA study showed that only 7 percent of a message is delivered by the words, and the rest by everything surrounding them.

Nonverbal communication is the realm of photography. As photographers, we explore and transport through time and space the world that resides outside the written and spoken word.

That would seem to make what we do pretty important, wouldn’t it?

Forgetting What a Picture Is Worth

And yet, our newspapers and magazines spend more space on words than they do on photography, forgetting so often the famous adage that an image is worth a thousand words.

Editors seem convinced that if we do not read it or hear about it, it cannot really be real.

An amazing amount of energy, time and money is spent on collecting data to transmit via words — when a few images could easily, and more powerfully, do the same.

Unfortunately, centuries of dubious philosophies, started by Plato himself, have taught us not to believe in what we see — that images are limited, illusory or represent a lower order of knowledge. It’s a concept that stays with us today.

Our Clearest Understanding

And yet, how many times have we witnessed a scene without hearing a word and immediately understood what was going on?

A couple arguing on a street corner.

A woman carefully opening her change purse to pay for cloth in a store.

Children lining up for ice cream on a summer day.

Seeing such things, rather than hearing or reading about them, is what gives us our clearest, most visceral understanding of the world around us.

The Third Language

Dogs can communicate with us without a word. And they’re our best friends.

Photography is the third language, words and music being the first two. That is what gives the work of photographers its power, its heft.

If your photographs explain, then they have done their duty. But if they only replicate the world without advancing our understanding of it, they are no better than a mirror — or worse, a copy machine.

No one has ever stood in awe of a well-done photocopy.

It’s something worth remembering next time you are behind the lens.


3 Responses to “Photography Is the Third Language — Use It to Say Something”

  1. with all respect -- you're speaking in an echo chamber. Get the word out to all the buyers who are telling us that the images they take off Flicker are "good enough."

  2. "only 7 percent of a message is delivered by the words"

    or 100% by invalidating the other, pictorial, 93% !!

  3. Photography is an art.

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