Photos are worth many words but they can be too powerful

Photos are worth many words but they can be too powerful


It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words.

That expression probably originated in a US newspaper early in the 20th century, though some people try to claim the actual value is 10,000 words and that the saying originated with Confucius.

Whatever its origin, I certainly agree that an image says many words.

Photography not only makes a newspaper stand out, but good photographs are incredibly powerful because they evoke strong emotions in viewers.

I would even argue that still photography is usually more powerful than video because it can freeze a dramatic moment in time.

One of the most dramatic and memorable photos of the 20th century shows South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon in 1968. The Pulitzer Prize winning photo shot by Eddie Adams was taken a split second before the bullet entered the prisoner’s head. The execution was also captured by NBC news cameras, but it’s the Adams photo that people remember – not the TV news footage.

“Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world,” Adams later said.

Of course, most photos in the media aren’t nearly so dramatic. At a community paper, readers often expect us to take photos of cheque presentations for worthy causes or of groups of award winners standing side by side. It’s part of our role to document these achievements by members of the community, but it doesn’t often lend itself to prize-winning photography.

That’s why I was especially pleased when a photo I took last year of a bomber plane dropping retardant on a wildfire at Spotted Lake won gold in the spot news photo category at last month’s Ma Murray Newspaper Awards.

There’s another angle to this story though. My photo was up against two other finalists, one of which was a photo taken by Lyonel Doherty, the editor of our sister paper, the Oliver Chronicle.

Lyonel may not have a vast technical knowledge of photography, but he has a very good eye for images and often shoots photos from interesting angles.

His photo showed Oliver Fire Chief Dan Skaros about to rescue an eight-year-old boy from a burning motorhome. The chief reached through a broken window to retrieve the boy, who was unconscious and badly burned. Unfortunately the boy died a couple of weeks later.

The judges of the newspaper awards gave Lyonel a bronze, saying his photo showed the suspense of the moment. It would, however, have been more powerful, they said, if it showed the boy actually being rescued from the burning motorhome.

In fact, Lyonel had taken such a picture. When you’re a photographer covering this kind of tragedy, you do your job and only reflect on it afterwards.

When Lyonel reflected on it, he decided the photo would be too disturbing for readers and he chose not to run it, using a photo without the boy instead.

Since his dramatic photo never appeared in the paper, it wasn’t eligible for the award. If it had been entered, I have no doubt Lyonel would have taken the gold instead of me.

Some of the great photos of the 20th century show horrible images of death and suffering, but viewers are often more detached when events are half a world away.

It’s often a difficult call to decide what to show readers, but in a small community, sometimes the power of a picture is just too strong.

Richard McGuire

Special to the Chronicle

(Richard McGuire is a reporter/photographer with the Osoyoos Times. His photos have appeared in a number of Canadian and international publications.)

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