I’m not a naturally visual person. As a child I was that rare creature who preferred books to TV- I’d walk to school with my head between the pages, shunning films for the magical worlds I found there. Most of my professional life has been in radio- I’m passionate about the power of sound and words to spark people’s imagination, to communicate directly with the listener, and always resent the characterisation of the medium as ‘TV without the pictures’.
However, after a brief stint working in television, I was forced to seek out a visual education. My colleagues were image junkies, film buffs who were so enthused about the ‘language’ of images that I wanted to learn their grammar. I started watching film and TV with far more attention, seeing the craft that went into excellent work, creating finely honed and structured ‘paragraphs’ and carefully developed arguments. I also began to see how bad film and TV was simply a stream of “underselected” images, the visual equivalent of a bad A-level essay.
There is something uniquely powerful about a great image. A great sentence or metaphor from a poem will linger in our minds, yes, and bleed into many other contexts, but brilliant photos often “do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it” (Susan Sontag). I was recently reading about the role of image in the Ethiopian famine of 1973-74. Tony Hall was the Communications officer for Oxfam at the time, and desperately trying to get coverage of the disaster in newspapers. He did have some articles printed, but tells how it it was only Jonathan Dimbleby’s iconic film that “woke up the world”, opened the gates to the news outlets, and galvanised the NGOs into action. Those images of hollow cheeked, bow legged, pot bellied children with flies around their eyes gave power to the familiar word “famine”, multiplying its impact many times over. They communicated a situation in a way that no amount of radio reporting could do, and they ultimately changed it.
I am still loyal to the written and spoken word, but am enjoying my tentative explorations of visual language. God is the originator of communication, and I want to walk in all his paths. Some theologians think that when God ‘spoke’ the creation into being in Genesis 1, the word he spoke was ‘Jesus’. Our Lord is language, logos, meaning, but we are in his image. Ultimately, I’m not sure God distinguishes- Psalm 19 says:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard
And we do 'hear' them, don’t we? The skies do have a language. It’s like the song we used to sing in Rainbows said: “Listen with your eyes”.
If you're a fan of silly quizzes you can find out if you're more of a visual or an auditory person here, though I imagine most of us already know...
Elizabeth Hunter is director of Theos Think Tank