I was reading an article that tells how much a picture can attract our attention. The inclusion of a single image can increase the likelihood of someone stopping to read an article, sharing it or, indeed, making it go viral. It isn’t difficult to understand why… an image needs no words to convey a message. It has no language barrier…. And, in this day when we all read onscreen, skimming most of the content, according to all the research, rather than carefully reading each word, images appeal to our need for speed. Interesting enough on its own, but as usual, it got me thinking. In itself the words called up images in my own mind that sparked of a whole other train of thought.
In one of those random moments, I realised that if I were but an image of myself, I would hate to live in a photo frame, no more than a two-dimensional representation, bounded by straight edges and right angles of rigidity. I’d rather be a movie. Even that lacks the extraordinary depth of life. Yet it is through images that we learn about our world… visual representations registered by our own eyes, non-visual ‘images’ formed by our other senses, or even those scenes painted by imagination on the screen of the mind..
I take a lot of pictures… I am not alone in that. The digital age has made photography accessible to all. We take them for many reasons… perhaps to capture a magical memory, document a trip, or to share the wonder we feel in this beautiful world. Sometimes we film videos… sweeping panoramas, or the antics of a small dog, maybe… yet neither photograph nor film can ever truly catch the essence of a moment. They lack the depth, the dimensions brought to an instant by emotion. They do not catch the scent of a rose or the subliminal buzzing of life in a meadow. They cannot capture the taste of salt spray on your lips or the wind in your hair… or the warmth of a baby’s fingers clutching yours.
Professionals, and those gifted amateurs who have a real feel for photography, can capture something that conveys the idea of those feelings, often so sublimely that they evoke a deep response. A smile for the cute kitten whose fur looks so soft… a yearning for a much-loved place… the tenderness known only by the heart. They evoke, beautifully, poignantly, but they can only be an impression of experience.
Some of those images though can change the world. Few who recall the BBC images from Biafra in the 60s will ever forget them. They brought home to us, quite literally as we sat down to dinner with the TV in the corner, the plight of children starved to little more than skin and bone. It changed the way we thought. It changed the way we chose to believe in the world.
Adverts… Shots of movie stars that change fashions. The Earthrise picture taken from the moon… Mother Theresa, Churchill, Picasso… iconic figures and defining moments, both good and tragic, that delight, shock or move the world to action. Images of beauty and destruction have altered our view and our stance on ecology, far faster than a mere governmental report or two could do.
Images can unite us. Princess Diana, Kennedy, 9/11… when the world stood still and watched… People and governments have been galvanised to respond to tragedy worldwide. Images change things.
In the same way, our governments have always used imagery to change public opinion, a legal technique of mass manipulation…propaganda or censorship, often imposed ‘for our own protection’. I think of the images of the bombing of Hiroshima. My mother had an old film projector and footage of the Enola Gay and the mushroom cloud. I remember watching it when I was young and being told of the destruction. Yet, for a quarter of a century the full picture was hidden and we were only permitted to see the material devastation, not the human horror of atomic warfare. Why? Because it was too horrific… and besides, they were still making atomic weapons… Such footage could change our minds. Yet the Allied governments felt able to show newsreel footage of the atrocities perpetrated by our enemies in that same war. The history we were shown was the truth, perhaps… but not the whole truth. But images ensured we felt the way we ‘should’.
At the other end of the scale there are the less warlike pursuits. Meditation techniques, like those we use in the Silent Eye, that draw images in the mind, bringing an understanding that is experiential, even though it is lived only in the mind. The symbolism of our varied faiths sustains us on a personal level.. from the dove to the star; the statue of Buddha, the pentagram or an icon of the Madonna… Not in themselves objects of worship, but images of something too great to constrain in physical form, but which we can understand when imagination speaks to the heart. Such things use imagery to bring peace to the individual…and yet can be misappropriated to inflame a nation to war.
Artists of all kinds… writers, photographers and filmmakers, poets, sculptors and musicians…all create images, just as you and I do, all day and every day, within our minds. Such images are born of observation and imagination. That word itself says it all. We have the power to shape reality for those who find our work or are touched by our vision of the world. There is a responsibility that goes with that. Whatever world we shape speaks to the imagination of others. We may seek only to record. Or to entertain and amuse. Perhaps we teach, question or educe. It doesn’t matter. Whatever we create carries something from the deepest levels of our own being out into the world. We cannot take responsibility for what the minds of others do with our work… once it has been set free, our creation responds only to those who look, read or listen. The responsibility we have lies in our own intent and from which part of ourselves we create… and why.