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Essay: A Universal Language of Images

Article
Date
Apr 11, 2013
Location
Queenstown, New Zealand

Hello. I'm Trey Ratcliff. I'm a travel photographer, and I love using technology to create beautiful things.

I believe we’re starting to use images to communicate in a new way with one another. Imagery is a universal language that has no borders and describes truths and stories that all humans can recognize.

Let's start with a thought experiment. Imagine a parallel universe where civilization has developed along slightly different lines.

Think of the moment when mankind first began to record their experiences, using crude imagery to communicate concepts and ideas. Behold, a new invention appears! It is a very early image-making device—a proto-camera of sorts. The invention spreads quickly through the major population centers via traveling tradesmen, and cultures around the world gradually begin to capture images of the world around them.

Inventors continue to improve this device so that most people are able to tell their own stories with pictures and groupings of images. These devices become as plentiful as quill and ink in our own version of this timeline.

No "written word" evolves. There are no letters, no symbology, no Phoenician, no Sumerian or Aramaic or Sanskrit, no Eastern ideograms, and no Roman alphabet we know today. In this parallel universe, no advanced civilization goes through the trouble of using a pen and paper to describe an idea or concept or a story, because it is easier and more efficient for everyone to quickly create images.

There is no Rosetta stone, because there is no difference in how people record information. Images are universal. A picture of a royal birth in Gaul is understood by the people in Mesopotamia. A picture of a cavalry charge of Genghis Kahn across the highlands of Mongolia is easily understood in northern Africa.

And there is a parallel-Shakespeare. He doesn't weave words into gentle forms and delicate sonnets. Instead, he takes image-making in a new direction. He tells stories by putting together a series of images where actors show pain and loss and love and betrayal and death and drama. These are mass-produced and shown to audiences around the world—a new and beautiful way of telling stories. Monks do not sit with ink and pen in candlelit monasteries to re-copy a written symbology to communicate concepts of an ethereal world. Instead, they use other devices to copy and paste a series of images that describe divinity and communicate spiritual notions.

In this world, children do not spend ten years of their lives learning how to convert a concept or idea into a series of alphanumeric symbols. They don’t slave away with paper and pen to create a series of cogent sentences so that others may "read" their thoughts and reverse-engineer them into imagery in their mind. This inefficient "translation" layer is a waste of time for children to learn in their important formational years. Instead, they are taught to use their own picture-making devices to record information and ideas. In this world, there is no "illiteracy" because anyone can understand a simple picture, though advanced concepts may require viewing a series of them.

Pictures are everywhere, and children and grownups alike crave new pictures, new stories. Suddenly, this doesn’t sound like a different dimension any more, does it?

As we’re sliding through the second decade of the new millennium, something new is happening. We all have cameras in our mobile phones and taking a photo of something is far more efficient than typing a sentence about it. Sharing that image online is not only easier - it’s automatic. Your friends and family immediately see the concept or story that you have created.

When there’s a birth in the family, what is better and faster: writing a few paragraphs about the experience, or taking a series of photos from your family to see? Yes, there will be many journalist graduates who shake their quills violently in the air at this idea, but I think the evidence online speaks for itself.

Think about the "streams" that fill our days in web browsers and smartphones. We scroll and scroll and scroll, often skipping past text updates and pausing whenever we get to a photo. Imagery is more immediate, more evocative, and more interesting than text. There is no "translation" necessary. We don't have to use these complex text-to-imagery-brain-translation that we've been perfecting all our lives. Let's just skip that bit and look at the images and video, right?

I think people who take pleasure in and prefer the written word to imagery will be an ever-diminishing percentage, though they'll never disappear. I was raised in an alphanumeric world; I love sitting outside on a cool night under a warm blanket and reading a good book; but I also love taking photos of concepts and ideas that can't be captured in words and sharing them online.

This new visual literacy that we’re adopting is fundamentally changing communication. For hundreds of years, the only people who could mass-communicate ideas were the few people who had the power to purchase a printer’s services for their content—the church, the government, and the wealthy elite, mostly. Now, things are more democratic. Everyone has a printing press in their pocket that can mass-produce images, describe concepts and tell stories. Over time, we will all become better at telling stories through images — about our daughter's ballet recital, a graduation, a new love, a new passion — the things that matter to us.

As our streams become more about imagery than words, all of us will evolve a new sense of visual literacy. It is important to note that imagery is not better or worse than text — it is simply different. Those who have spent decades bathing themselves in words are quite adept at abstracting ideas and concepts into words and sentences. The world of academia is one that is based on this abstraction of concepts into words. A book on philosophy, for example, is almost inconceivable without having one super-abstracted word like "epistemology" to represent a bundled set of concepts. And those of us who were raised in an alphanumeric age begin to grow older, we take great pleasure in learning new words out there like "schadenfreude", a wonderful word that means, "to take pleasure in the misfortune of another."

In our make-believe world of imagery, could these ideas of philosophy and other academia that are bathed in words even be possible? It's hard to say, because we've never given them a chance to flourish. When we teach millions of people to write, they will work together to create a higher concept of thought and academia. Now that billions of people have a camera, we will see what follows. I believe that people will work together to create a new visual literacy that will build upon itself over time. We all know that there are wonderful things in life where words just fall apart. These gentle feelings have been the domain of poets, who use vague "imagery" to illustrate the situation.

Imagery is inherently a more "human" way to communicate. All seven billion people on Earth understand the same visual concepts of what it means to be a human. Not only are there universal facial expressions of emotions, but all cultures are connected through human connection. We all share the idea of joyful children playing without thought. We all feel the serenity of a forest while the autumn leaves color the ground on a warm afternoon. We all share the feeling of time slipping through between our fingers like water cupped from a river.

I believe this is the most exciting time to be alive, and it’s the most exciting time to take photos. Some old-school photographers may be upset that everyone can take photos now, but to keep that power and knowledge in the hands of the few is an old way of thinking akin to the old printing press. Since the advent of the Internet, now everyone has a printing press. Now, literally billions of people have cameras too. Soon, there will be no more value in having a camera — the value is in the human that is holding it.

Billions of people now have a totally new way to communicate, and we will all discover this new visual literacy together. Now, finally, our ideas and thoughts and feelings and stories can effortlessly travel across borders, cultures, and time.

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