Think back to the Main Street of your town 50 years ago (or Google it if you weren’t alive then). It looks very different from today doesn’t it? Maybe not as many colors, or lights or IMAGES? We live in a time of sensory overload according to Sturken and Cartwright in their chapter called Images, Power, and Politics.
We have to choose where to focus our eyes, since there is so much going on around us. Imagine standing in the middle of the county fair. There are more images around you then you can handle. You might get dizzy as your eyes shift their gaze. But do you have a choice in the matter? Sturken and Cartwright say that looking involves relationships of power and that you have the choice to willfully look or not. I think images are even more powerful than they admit. I’m not sure there is always a choice in the matter, but rather images draw you in, so that it is near impossible to not move your eyes in that direction. We do agree on the fact that we rely heavily on sight in this society in which we live–what street to turn on, which gas station has the lowest price, when to stop at a red light, etc.
Simply put, images have power. They have power to lead us, direct us, overwhelm us, but they also have the power to invoke emotion. People are widely unique and images can mean very different things for different people. However, they do have the power to encourage these different responses and emotions.
For example, take a minute and look at this picture. What comes to mind? Poverty? Joy? Dirty clothes? His smile? This is Shequan, a 5-year-old boy living in an orphanage where I worked in Belize. For me, this image means something very different than you. I held his hand, I tried to control his flailing limbs when he threw a (way to common) temper tantrum, I heard his cries at night for his mom. But without all of that, you have to judge for yourself. This probably made you feel some kind of emotion, whether it be good or bad.
Next, Sturken and Cartwright ask the question of reflection or representation? They don’t really have a clear answer, because this distinction is hard even for experts to make. But, they do use René Magritte’s painting, The Treachery of Images, to demonstrate this point; it is a painting of a pipe, with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” printed underneath. That is translated as, “This is not a pipe,” even though it very clearly is a painting of a pipe. But that is Magritte’s purpose. It is not an actual pipe that you could pick up and use to smoke. It is simply a representation of a pipe, which is what many of the images we see are.
Lastly, they discuss the truth of images. They say that photography is not realism because there is subjective choice by the photographer in selection of what to include, framing, and personalization of the image. These days, probably more often than anyone of us would like to admit, each one of us has the power skew the truth of an image at the tip of our fingers with an Instagram filter. The images we post online are more than likely edited in some way, taking away from the truth of the digital image.
So, next time you hear the cliché, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” you will know it is true because so much is hiding behind that child’s face or the sunset at the beach.