If a picture's worth a thousand words, why write?

It was the power of a single image, writ large. A picture's worth a thousand words? More like millions. The recent photograph of drowned three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi lying face down on the beach came after months of news reports about other drownings, including of children, in the Mediterranean and the ever-growing toll of the Syrian civil war. Yet none of those previous reports 'cut through' in the way that the picture of Aylan did.

And of course it's not the first time this has happened. The picture of a terrified, naked girl, later identified as Kim Phuc, in Vietnam in 1972 is credited with shifting the world's response to the war in that country. And there have been numerous other examples of iconic, opinion-changing images going back through history.

It makes you wonder. Why write at all? Why not just tell our stories with pictures? Imagine the effort that could be saved. All that ploughing through writer's block, all that tedious editing.

The truth is that as much as 'one picture changes the world' makes a good news story in itself, it is rarely as simple as that.

The photo of Aylan drew attention to his family's plight and that of millions of other Syrians. Its compelling nature forced us to dig deeper. Far more people were suddenly drawn to read the stories – the countless words – that were already being written, and had been written for the last few years, about the terror being imposed on innocent Syrians, mostly by their own government. Words that gave context and meaning.

Finally those who had been shouting into the wind about the Syrian conflict were being listened to. All that writing didn't go to waste. It had just been waiting for its moment.

Without all the other reporting and writing of hard-working journalists, Aylan's story would have been just another graphic bad news story to fill out the nightly news bulletins. But it wasn't. Because of all those words, the photograph had some real power.

With the masses having woken up, so did their governments – or some of them. Suddenly there was some urgency, and some action. It remains a long way short of what is needed, and one thing this tragedy didn't do was have any impact on the war that is causing people to flee in the first place.

Let's not kid ourselves that a picture alone can do all the work. Yes, photos can be incredibly powerful and they can add enormous depth to a story. But we still need words to fill between the lines.

And most of us should be thankful that the stories we have to tell are much more mundane.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

Image by Ann64 on Flickr used under Creative Commons license

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