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A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words? by John Dabell

We have been producing images for thousands of years and long before the written word was introduced. Prehistoric or primitive art was a form of communication through images and it was these pictures that did all the talking. Fast-forward to today and our image-saturated lives means that pictures still speak louder than ever.

In a world of social media and the instant sharing of images, the idiom ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ seems to have more and more truth and power to it than ever before. Pictures pack a punch and are stronger than ever.

This well-used phrase has been around for some time and one of the earliest known references to the expression is from a 1911 newspaper article in which newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane, speaking about journalism and publicity, says “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

A similar phrase, “One Look Is Worth A Thousand Words,” appeared in a 1913 newspaper advertisement for the Piqua Auto Supply House of Piqua, Ohio.

It is thought the contemporary use of the saying comes from an article in the December 8, 1921 issue advertising trade journal Printers’ Ink, in which Fred R. Barnard referred to “One Look is Worth A Thousand Words” to endorse the use of images in adverts on the sides of streetcars.

Barnard used another advert 6 years later using the phrase “One Picture Worth Ten Thousand Words,” which he wrongly credited as being a Chinese proverb so people would take it more seriously. As a result, the expression is erroneously attributed to Confucius.



Then we have another saying, very similar in meaning: “Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours,” or “A good sketch is better than a long speech” and this is often attributed to Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

But is a picture worth a thousand words? Is it priceless or worthless? What makes a picture?

Picture Power

Pictures can be emotional and beautiful, painful and traumatic and a million things in between. They tell a story without words and they instantly have impact. Some photos grab our attention like a Venus fly-trap and can provoke a range of emotions and feelings. They can affect our opinions and even motivate us to behave differently and take on a whole new perspective. Photos have the power to shape identities, life experiences and points of view.

Pictures are commonly used in the news media because they add colour, weight and gravitas to a scene, situation or event. Above all, they tell stories that can give us insights about the world around us. Children need to be aware that all photos exist for a reason and knowing the purpose of a photograph and its intended audience can help with interpreting a photograph.

Mobile phones with in-built cameras mean that taking pictures is now incredibly easy and in a sense everyone is a photojournalist. But visual reporting comes with real responsibilities as images are only part of a story and cannot describe the full picture. Direct, truthful and bold images are rare because a picture is open to interpretation and can easily be misconstrued.

When we show children news pictures then we have to equip them with the critical skills to take a mental step back and think around the edges. In our media rich environment, becoming adept at decoding images is becoming ever more important.

Most people immediately understand an image but this understanding can be incomplete because the image could be biased or doctored. A photo is a snapshot, a still moment in time and part of something much bigger, deeper and wider. A picture is worth a double-take and then some more because it can be sketchy.

Picture Ponder

Developing visual literacy is key to helping children become news media-savvy.

Visual literacy is the ability to interpret and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image (photograph, web page, movie, object.)

Sharing pictures with children gives us the opportunity to help them ‘read between the lines’ and see that a photographer or photojournalist will have their own point of view and their own agenda.

Taking a picture can be quite a natural and casual event but it can also be planned and executed according to a plan. The choices made by a photographer influence how we see the world and these can have huge implications. Help children to understand that photographers show us what they want us to see because they choose the setting and how they ‘shoot’ the picture.

Children also need to know this: every photograph we look at was created at one point in time, in a particular place, of a chosen subject, by a particular photographer and for a specific purpose. The technology used also has a massive bearing on what we see – the manipulation and editing of pictures can profoundly alter our sense of reality.

Talk about the key role news editors have in deciding what news we get to see. What do they think about the old newsroom adage ‘If it bleeds, it leads’? Sensationalism sells but are dramatic pictures exploitative and gross invasions of privacy?

Every picture tells a story

At the end of every year there are often photo news summaries devoted to taking a contemplative look at some of the key events and people that have ‘made the news’. These are often called ‘ The Year in Photos’ and are a great opportunity to think more carefully about the role of photos and the concept of ‘picture news’.

Take a look at and carefully select and share some of the photographs for children to look at with more of a critical eye. Alternatively, take a look at ‘picture of the day’ or ‘pictures of the week’. The New York Times run a weekly What’s Going On In This Picture? (WGOITP) which you can find at

Without showing children any of the news text, captions or summaries, ask them to consider what the stories might be about.

  • First, encourage children to write down what they see without making any interpretation. How can you put into words what you see with your eyes? Look carefully at the position of people and objects, colours, objects etc.
  • Next, can they describe what is happening? What’s going on? What more can they find?
  • Why was this photo taken? How does it make you feel? What are you thinking?
  • What questions do children have about the photo that they would want to know more about?
  • Are the photographers’ an integral part of the event or are they fly on the wall observers? What did the photographer want to convey?
  • Are they being paid to tell a visual story to capture news or were they just ‘in the right place at the right time’?
  • Discuss the different interpretations of the photo and refer to specific features of the image that ‘speak to you’.
  • What can we learn from this photo?

A photograph can be interpreted entirely differently by groups of children and individuals so this exercise is an interesting one to compare and contrast perspectives and the biases of viewers. It also illustrates why we need words in the form of a report or story to shed more light and explain a picture.

Looking at photos together and sharing experiences teaches children that photos only capture moments and they are seldom comprehensive or entirely representative. Incorporating photographic study into our visual literacy work offers not only an excellent opportunity for learning the challenge of accurate description but also how to see beyond the picture itself.

While words can provide wider and deeper perspective many people only see the pictures and sometimes choose to ignore any accompanying text that explains the image, so impress upon children why it is important to read the corresponding article and caption that goes with it.

Explain why analysing pictures and texts help us to respond more thoughtfully and critically so we aren’t just passive consumers of the news but active interpreters of the world around us.

With so many photographs available on so many websites we are spoiled for choice. For example,

BBC News

NBS News

The New York Times

The Daily Telegraph

Another source well worth looking at is, a fabulous website where you can view the entire collection of winning images from the 60th World Press Photo Contest. This is the site where you can explore thousands of award-winning photos by year or theme and help children unravel and discover the hidden stories behind the photos.

Ask children to look at some of the pictures from the past that have become ‘iconic images’. What is it about these images that have a lasting impact and what roles have they played in the legacy of the events?  For example, the 9/11 Twin Towers photo – how does this affect how children think and feel about this event?


And finally…

Pictures may well be worth a thousand words but sometimes they are so powerful there are no words. These photos may be shocking, beautiful or both but they speak a different language because they transcend verbal communication. Sometimes news pictures just stun us and take us back to our primitive roots where images speak their own language.

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