I posted the above photograph to my Instagram account last October. My husband and I were in London at the time – our last stop on a two-week vacation across Europe. The shopfront shown in the photo, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, is a 350-year-old pub supposedly frequented by the likes of Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Sir Author Conan Doyle, among other famous authors. I learned about the pub on a travel blog that listed “must see” places in London for literature enthusiasts, so, naturally, I dragged my husband there.
After I snapped the photo, I played around with Instagram filters. I chose one that brightened up the pink flowers and made St. Paul’s Cathedral pop against the gray sky. Instead of writing a caption, I chose three emojis: a storm cloud, an open book, and clinking beers. The photo got a decent number of “likes” and one person commented that it looked “so dreamy.”
The photo does look dreamy. After all, making the photo (and our brief stop in London) look dreamy was my goal when I posted it. But the photograph on its own cannot and does not accurately convey the reality of our 48 hours in London.
Here’s the truth: By the time we reached London, we had already spent three days in Paris, four days in Santorini, and four days in Amsterdam. We were exhausted, our clothes were all dirty, and we were out of money. London was colder than we expected – and rainy. We got lost trying to find our Airbnb; when we finally found it, we were drenched and freezing. So, instead of sightseeing, we spent our first day in London hulled up in our Airbnb binge-watching The Office. Our second day, we bought a cheap umbrella at a gift shop and ventured outside. That’s when I captured and posted the above photo of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. After a few hours, the wind blew our umbrella inside out, and we went back to our Airbnb and napped until it was time to go to the airport.
… Not exactly as “dreamy” of an experience as I would have liked people to think.
The other day, someone I follow on Instagram posted a vacation photo – a gorgeous cliffside landscape. Her caption was, “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” When I saw that, I wondered if it were really true. I thought about the reality behind my London photo, and of the realities behind all the other pictures I’ve posted on Instagram and Facebook over the years.
That old adage – a picture is worth 1,000 words – along with our social media culture have conditioned us to believe that images can speak certain truths about the world that words cannot. But do images really have that power? And, if so, do we actually use our images to convey the truth of our experiences?
The phrase “a picture is worth 1,000 words” is often attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius and, therefore, is accepted as an ancient piece of wisdom. However, the first person to use the phrase was actually a clever advertiser named Fred Barnard, who realized that photographs are much more effective than words when it comes to selling things. In the 1920s, the phrase appeared in advertising trade journals to promote the use of images in marketing campaigns.
Many of us use our Instagram and Facebook photos to advertise too, but instead of promoting products, we’re trying to promote ourselves – to persuade others (and perhaps to convince ourselves along the way) that our lives are significant and meaningful. More often than not, my photographs are attempts to seek this kind of validation – not images that really depict any sort of complex reality or truth. They say, look at my recent adventure, look at this amazing meal, look how healthy I am, look at all of my friends, look at my successes.
Pictures are not always meant for validation or self-promotion, of course. There are plenty of healthy, non-self-promotional reasons to post photos on social media: to connect with long-distance friends and family, to share art, to inspire others toward good. However, if I’m really honest with myself, I know that my photos (whatever my motivations may be) do not convey truth in the same way that words can.
When used wisely, our words – unlike our social media photo galleries – have the power to encourage and uplift others. Our words can make others feel loved, seen, and known. Our words, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can help others to know the perfect love of Jesus Christ – the only person who had cause to exalt Himself but who chose instead to humble Himself by becoming human and dying on the cross for our sins.
So, when it comes to advertising, maybe a picture is worth 1,000 words. But, when it comes to conveying truth, words seem pretty important.