Writing, Photography, and the Art of Thinking Visually

As some of my recent posts suggest, I’m a big fan of adding visual elements to written content, whether with infographics, illustrations, or photos. For the last few weeks, though, I’ve been wondering if I’m not putting too much stress on visual media. The graphic arts are brilliant tools for communication, yes, but words are every bit their match.Camera with "words" in lens

What started me worrying about this matter was a casual comment by Nieman Journalism Lab’s Justin Ellis. In his opening for an article on the quite different subject of photography’s potential to mislead, he made a “painful” admission.  There are times, he wrote, “when photos can tell more of a story than words could ever express.”

Sometimes the urge for a good lead makes you say things you don’t quite mean. But even if Ellis believes his claim, I’m not buying it. Writing can tell a story just as powerfully as a photo. But that’s only true if the writer learns to see and write in a visual way.

One of the reasons a photograph can seem so powerful is that it captures details of an event that many news or business writers might not think pertinent  or appropriate—a facial expression, the relation of people to their surroundings, the sense of place. But writers can see those same details. They just have to recognize their value and put them in their writing.

One writer who does so brilliantly is Steve Coll. Here is his opening paragraph from “The Casbah Coalition” in the April 4th issue of The New Yorker:

The office of the Prime Minister of Tunisia is situated in a three-story white-washed building with an arched Moorish entry. It faces north onto the Casbah, a plaza in the old quarter of Tunis. The view from the Prime Minister’s window is normally serene, taking in a tiled fountain and pruned ficus trees, but, by the afternoon of a day in late February, thousands of citizens had transformed the Casbah into what looked like a squatters’ camp. They had organized a round-the-clock sit-in to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Ghannouchi, and they were joined each weekend by large numbers of like-minded protesters. The fountain was completely covered by tents; ropes hoisted tarps from the trees.

This is visual writing, but it is not simply a snapshot of what the reporter saw. It sandwiches two views together—the ordinary serene picture of the Casbah with an extraordinary chaotic one. It shows the collision of stasis and change, a process of transformation unfolding before our eyes.

I’m not suggesting that writers don’t need or shouldn’t use photographs or other illustrations in their work. Rather, I’m arguing against two dangerous temptations for writers.

First, the simple availability of visual media should not constrain the visual element in our writing. It’s a false choice anyway: I suspect that if you can’t write visually, you won’t be very good at choosing graphics either.

Second, one medium is not inherently superior to the other. They are not categorically different, but lie along a continuum of representational media.

In the end, the key is learning to think with your eyes. The more you do, the better both your writing and the graphics you choose will be.

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