Words or Images?

To perceive things such as trees and buildings through images delivered to the eye, the brain uses wholeness, simultaneity, and synthesis. To ferret out the meaning of alphabetic writing, the brain relies instead on sequence, analysis and abstraction.

–Author Leonard Shlain (as quoted in BrainPickings.)


I was going through about a million articles last night that I’d bookmarked for future reading – organizing them and deleting some, etc. (Computer-desktop housekeeping, basically.) And I came across one from BrainPickings:How the Invention of the Alphabet Usurped Female Power in Society and Sparked the Rise of Patriarchy in Human Culture.”

It was pretty interesting – and definitely sparked my interest in reading the book that was being discussed (The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, by Leonard Shlain.)

It left me thinking about how we (as humans) process information and ideas – and how we do so when the conduit is words versus images.

And it got me thinking specifically about myself in this regard. This has been a subject that’s perplexed me a lot in the last few months, as I’ve found myself pulled more and more toward photography as my expressive medium of choice – and away from writing.


One of the things I’ve been trying to understand about myself is that I love to write – I really do. And yet writing isn’t, and has never been, completely fulfilling to me. There’s always been a component of frustration. I used to chalk this up to not having (or not being able to figure out how to make) enough time to write – but I’ve actively made lots and lots of time to write in the last few years, and the feeling has only increased.

So I don’t think it’s about time. I also don’t think it’s about ability, because I do think I’m a decent writer – efficient and fairly adept. I went all the way through school, even through grad school, pretty confident in this. And I’ve had pretty good luck every time I’ve dabbled into freelancing.

But the undeniable fact is that photography makes me feel like I’m standing at the ocean in the sunshine – exhilarated by the majesty of the waves, liberated, free, full of just endless potential. Photography, for me, is about air and flow.

Photography, for me, is about the free air...the free flow.
My daughter, enjoying the air and the waves and the sunshine at Assateague Island, Maryland, this past June.

Writing, in contrast, is like the woods. It’s pretty, I like it. But I have to pick my way through it to get anywhere. There’s the occasional burst of sunshine or nice fresh breeze – but oftentimes it’s a tiny bit suffocating. There’s so much tangled vegetation, so many holes to navigate around. “Free flow” it’s not.

My son at Great Falls Park, Virginia, in June.
My son at Great Falls Park, Virginia, in June.

I’ve been trying to understand why I feel like this: why I can enjoy writing as much as I do, yet feel so limited by it. The more I develop as a photographer, the more curious this question becomes – because the differences between my experience of writing as a medium and photography as a medium is more glaring every day.


I have been able to isolate the fact that writing requires a certain regulation of feeling in order to create it – at least, for me. I feel something – whatever it is that’s compelling me to want to express myself. But then if I want to write, it becomes about manipulating words and sentences to express that feeling. For me this means an inherent restriction on the free flow of my expression. Even in free-writing to some extent: You still have to sequence your thoughts enough to utilize the alphabet to say something. There’s a rigor, an order, that must be imposed.

Photography simply doesn’t require that.

I mean, sure: I don’t just hold up my camera and press buttons. There’s an organization involved in that as well, in framing shots and manipulating camera settings and so on. I’m still learning about aperture and shutter speed and ISO and how they all inter-relate.

But…it’s different. That’s all I can say. For me it’s utterly different. The rigor of writing makes me feel limited…frustrated. Like a mold I have to cut and push and massage my ideas into before they can be realized.

In total contrast, the rigor of photography feels like opportunity. The tools of photography, rather than putting constructs over my feelings, are the means, I feel, for their enhancement and deepening. Writing can be an effective medium for expressing my ideas – but photography is a vehicle for expansion. It takes what I have and amplifies it…makes it more of itself. There’s clarity in that, and depth. Not that my writing is inauthentic (I hope not.) But there’s a feeling of purity that comes to me with photography (novice that I am) that I just can’t touch in writing.


My task of the moment is to pull myself out of this “newbie” stage. I’ve worked up to having my camera in full manual mode now – but I’m having very mixed results!

Practicing is fun though. I’m enjoying the challenge to master this stuff!


I want to hunt down that book now too – the Shlain book, from above.

The idea of alphabetic language as promoting a cultural structure that is (in Shlain’s words, quoted by BrainPickings) “linear, sequential, reductionist” is fascinating in and of itself. But as a means of expanding my understanding of myself and my own relationship with words and images, I’m really intrigued.


5 thoughts on “Words or Images?

  1. The BrainPickings book looks fascinating. I have no patience for writing lately. I have patience for the broad concepts but not the minutia — should a comma go here or not? does this need a dash? — Too much editing squelches my creativity. But with writing, as you know, one must edit to a degree to make sure words are presented in a clear way. You don’t seem to have that problem as much with photography. I’d hardly say I have an interest in photography for anything other than personally, but I do like taking pictures and getting stranded in the moment. I’m different when I’m taking photos — more present I suppose. I don’t enjoy all the details of learning about the camera, though this is also necessary once you reach a certain level. I’m envious of how focused you seem to be. I look forward to seeing more of your work.


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