“A picture is worth a thousand words,” this common idiom began running through my mind as I read Sarah Pink’s, Visual Ethnography. “It refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single picture, this picture conveys its meaning or essence more effectively than a description does.”
Psychology Today describes the power of visual images in this statement about our brains:
A large body of research indicates that visual cues help us to better retrieve and remember information. The research outcomes on visual learning makes sense when you consider that our brain is mainly an image processor (much of our sensory cortex is devoted to vision), not a word processor. In fact, the part of the brain used to process words is quite small in comparison to the part that processes visual images.
This is the basis of Pink’s assertions regarding ethnographic research. “Images are indeed part of how we experience, learn and know as well as how we communicate and represent knowledge.” Her perspective on ethnography is that of a pathway of discovering and depicting society and environments. The visual and sensory methodologies allows one to become fully knowledgeable holistically rather than just as a data collector.
The use of images to communicate is an ancient concept. Some of the oldest hieroglyphics were discovered on pottery vessels dating back to 3500BCE with pictorial forms of language through signs that represented words, sounds and meaning. This ancient form of visual communication is now experienced through contemporary forms of photograph, video and various forms of art. Everywhere we look we are inundated with visual messages.
Pink discussed the relationship between the maker and the viewer of photographic art and its rich contours to convey “the complexities of lived experience which can throw light on broader social structures and processes.” The maker must always remember we bring our whole selves into the presentation. Our world view and life experience are part of the shaping of the image. Silent observation of photographic art draws the onlooker into the context one is beholding and imagination begins reciting it’s meaning. The two become inextricably linked and a broadened perception is created as one sees through the eyes of another.
Written words with only objective data will never give human beings a complete experience as we are sensory creatures as much as cognitive. Pink has integrated her work with visual and sensory ethnographies because of this reality. People gain knowledge in a transformational manner through investigating experientially and holistically because of the “interwovenness” of our everyday lives. As we observe images and hear the narrative in our minds it often elicits our other senses such as smell and sound, and often invokes emotion.
Though I am a word person and keep the dictionary and thesaurus close at all times, in reality, I know that my retention is greater and the experience so much more enhanced when my eyes are viewing images rather just reading than words. This brings to mind the Holocaust museums I have visited in Washington, D.C. and Israel. Though the info graphs posted at each display gave detailed explanation, they were not necessary. As each story played out before me every part of my being was engaged in the experience and is just as real today as I reflect upon it. I can still see the pictures of the children, the rail cars they were transported in, the mound of shoes left behind, the measuring instruments for determining the perfection of facial features, the notes written to loved ones they may never read, the emaciated faces heading toward the horrific gas chambers, the officers and soldiers standing watch stone cold. No words were needed, the story was told, the impact made. I can close my eyes and still see the images and feel the darkness, I hear the silence and smell the stench of such horror.
Pink’s work provides a strong argument for the need of the academic disciplines to add experiential methodologies to their current approaches to education. As I consider what methods I have learned from most, that which has made a truly transformational difference, I have to agree with her. Let us observe and think critically about what we are seeing. Let us ask questions of the photo, the film, the website, what is the maker helping us see that we would otherwise miss? I have noticed that whether in an art gallery or a museum, the longer I stand still and ask questions about what I am l looking at, the more I discover, the more I learn. I can experience more of the world through the eyes of another for a picture truly is worth a thousand words.
 Pink, 25.
 Pink, 17.