Pen Ultimate / Visual or Verbal?

Words, of all things, do not speak for themselves. Neither do pictures

The photo of Palestinian Wissam Tayam playing the violin for the soldiers stationed at the Beit Iba checkpoint near Nablus - which was taken by Machsom Watch volunteer Horit Herman-Peled on November 9 - was reprinted on the first page of Haaretz on November 25, accompanied by a story of a few hundred words by Akiva Eldar. Everything that was written in Haaretz and other media should make us reassess the adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words." Personally, I've always thought that despite the relative worth of pictures versus words, the picture always takes up more space than a thousand words. Not in this case: The photo on Haaretz's first page was 12 cm. high and 17.6 cm. wide. Using the usual Haaretz text font, that space could have been home to about 500 words.

The preference for the visual was first expressed in Ecclesiastes (6:9): "Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire." The formula equating words to pictures is attributed by dictionaries of quotations to Confucius, or described as a Chinese, or possibly Japanese, proverb. But the equation "1 picture = 1,000 words" was the brainwave of publicist Fred R. Barnard, and it appeared for the first time in print 83 years ago this week, in the December 8, 1921, issue of Printers' Ink, a trade advertisers' magazine.

Barnard, who was promoting advertising on cars and buses, put a two-page ad in the magazine, without pictures, under the headline "One look is worth a thousand words." He presented it as a quote from "a famous Japanese philosopher" to add some gravitas to his message.

Barnard did not know, or at least did not admit to knowing, that there is, in fact, a Chinese saw, formulated by one General Zhou Chongguo, who extolled the value of visual intelligence over verbal reports, and said to Emperor Xuandi (49-74 B.C.E.): "Hearing a hundred times is not as good as seeing once sometime." It sounds better in Chinese: "bai wen bu ru yi jian." And even better in Yiddish: "gib a kik" ("take," or literally, "give a look"). On March 10, 1927, Barnard proposed an ad for a fictitious baking-powder company, this time with a picture of a smiling kid (apparently having the cake and eating it, too) - and included a Chinese proverb, with some Chinese letters, upping the ante with the accompanying text: "One picture is worth 10,000 words."

The photo of the Palestinian fiddler was accompanied by a verbal description. Different versions of the event, and questions, proceeded to crop up: Did the soldiers at the checkpoint (who remained nameless; only the Palestinian and the photographer were identified) force him to play - or was it his idea? What words, if any, were exchanged? Was the (unidentified) tune happy or sad? Were the soldiers intent on humiliating this man, and was he indeed humiliated (as he claimed he was)?

Speaking of which: What about the feelings of the street musicians in our cities, who play without soldiers or checkpoints?

Many words were subsequently written with respect to another, deeper dimension of the incident. If Israelis are asked at airports to open their laptop cases and use the computer inside to prove it is not a bomb, some wondered, why not ask a Palestinian violinist to open his violin case and play something? Gangsters used to carry their machine-guns in violin cases, so why not explosives? Are the checkpoints in the Palestinian territories a very bad idea to begin with because a Palestinian was asked to play at one?

And, of course, there is the Jewish "self-image" of the Fiddler on the Roof - wandering among the nations of the world and amusing them with his melodious pain - inverted and appropriated by the Palestinians. And the fact that Jews were indeed forced by Nazis to perform on their string instruments before meeting a horrible death. Does mention of the Holocaust in this particular context detract from its meaning? Does that image not come to mind without being put into words?

And, one wonders, who decides the relative or absolute meaning of words, ideas, concepts, pictures? What causes the galloping inflation of meaning? Is it up to the picture, the words - or the beholder?

In Tom Stoppard's play "Night and Day," the photographer George Guthrie, on assignment in an African country, presents himself and his colleague thus: "I take the pictures. The pictures, as you know, are worth a thousand words. In the case of Wagner [the reporter he is working with], 2,000."

Which makes me question another facile assumption - that pictures or words "speak for themselves." This is a truism, a tautology and utter nonsense as well. Rabbi Joseph Albo (1380-1440), in his "Book of Principles," comments on the fact than when Moses asked to know God's name in front of the Burning Bush, he received the answer: "I am that I am," which means that God is defined by himself "and not by anything else." Therefore, "his language speaks for himself."

But words, of all things, do not speak for themselves. Neither do pictures. They always have a spokesman, as does any official. But words' relative or absolute worth is defined not by the one who utters them, orally or in print, but by the one who hears or reads them, within the collective and the individual cultural, historical and actual context.

One picture is worth one picture. A thousand words are worth a thousand words. More or less. Or not. But the melody lingers on ...