A picture is worth a thousand words – so the famous saying goes. How I see it is that pictures have a language of their own. They express feelings. Feelings of joy, love, despair, sadness, pain, happiness, belonging… This language is the language of photography. It is a visual language!
(Waves after sunset – the intent was to show the simmering waves with the dark foreground of rocks and the last remains of the spectacular sunset that had preceded this moment)
What is language?
Simply stated, it is a means of communication. Here the two persons use a commonly understood sounds, words, grammar and sentences to communicate with each other. I am not a language teacher so I can’t give the real scientific definition but this is how I think of any language. Each language also has its own set of rules and usually a script too. Photography does the same thing. It can make one person communicate with another. The photographer communicates with the viewer. The rules are set by the capabilities and limitations of photography equipment, all the way to the final print.
Text from any language can be interpreted in many ways or sometimes even misinterpreted too. The lawyers fight out the various interpretations of a rule in court. Cultural differences further complicate matters. With no disrespect to anyone, here is a simple example – An American may call a dress as ‘expensive’ which simply means it costs a lot, however, when a Russian terms the dress as ‘expensive’ it implies that the dress is beyond her means to purchase it. “Let us have a sweet dish after dinner”. When I say this to Indian friends, they think of the Indian sweetmeats but the German friends of mine think of cakes loaded with chocolate sauce. Same words, different meanings. It’s all about cultural differences too.
In photography also, the cultural differences come in. A photograph of a child holding a bottle of coke may cause different feelings in different cultures. Indians may see him as a child with an unhealthy drink, citizens of some communist countries may see an impact of capitalism, starry eyed NGO workers from developed countries who work in some of the poorest part of the world, may either feel happiness at the child or correlate with the lack of clean drinking water in many places.
So, it seems that photography is one of the best ways to communicate. It has its own interpretations depending on the culture. There are its own limitations and set of rules. Is photography not a language on its own?
(Playing with colors during the festival of Holi – a blissful feeling on the face of child while she spreads the colors all around)
Good photographs speak out to me. They tell a story. A story that would have been taking place at the time of click, when that moment got captured forever and with it the essence of the story. For creating a story in a photograph, one just has to wait. The story starts to unfold and then there comes a moment when all the elements fall exactly into a place and tell the story. This decisive moment is when the story gets most successfully told. (Story in a Photograph)
Each and every photograph speaks out and tells a story. As a viewer, sometimes the stories are obvious as daylight and sometimes they get hidden away due to the confusion caused by unnecessary information that frequently gets included in the image. It is similar to the way famous story tellers are able to put their ideas clearly whereas poor writers can’t even get their thoughts across.
(A women selling her Crochet creations. Her art and how it works as her means of living is the story being told in this photograph)
Sheer Poetry in Photography
Then there are photographs that are poetic in nature. William Wordsworth, P. B. Shelly, Ralph Waldo Emerson and many others used words to express their feelings. We photographers, use our medium that is photography to express our feelings. Be it a lyric, a narrative or descriptive, what poets achieve with their poetry, the same level of emotional impact is achieved by writing poetry with photography.
Some months back, I walked on a deserted road, early winter morning. The chilled wind swept across my face. Sun was still not up and a thick layer of fog had covered up the marshy land. I could sense a poet in me coming alive but the words didn’t come out. However I was able to express my feeling with the photograph below.
(The grass stood out in the foggy marsh, like bunches of wild flowers, swaying slightly to the dance of chilled breeze)
It is in our DNA
The language of photography is the oldest. Sure, the photography is a relatively new in this world but humans have used pictures as means of expressing since they first walked this planet. No, I am not going to start discussing cave paintings. All I want to say is that our brains interpret photographs faster than any other language. It is embedded in our evolution. It is inherent.
Any language requires mastering its written and spoken communication. It requires efforts to learn the nuances that exist in the language. Photography is relatively an easy language to learn. The rules laid down by the photography equipment are simple. After all, it is in our DNA.
(Selling flowers on a busy street. The traffic flows on in the background and they sell their remaining flowers as the night sets in. Indian females love these scented flowers for decorating their hair)
Language that is Photography
Photography to me is a simple yet powerful language. It can tell stories, recite poetry, document everyday happenings and even communicate about once in a lifetime events. The camera, lens, various settings and the darkroom – these are the rules of this language. The elements of photographs are the stanzas or paragraphs and the photograph as a whole is the message, a story, a poem or even a complete documentary. The photographer is the speaker of the language and viewer is the listener/reader of this language. The photographs? They are the script!
(Mehendi or Henna – a must in every Indian wedding. How trained hands create intricate designs is portrayed in this photograph. The way the hands are poised conveys a feeling of concentration without even showing the face of the artist and outstretched hands of the bride depict her readiness to appear at her best.)
Learn to speak the language of photography and you’ll start feeling a myriad of emotions in whatever you see. The gentle breeze twirling the leaves will invoke the poet in you. The line of children walking towards their school may bring out the author in you. The twinkle in the children’s eyes, the wrinkled old hands, calm of a river to the playfulness of a mountain stream, pain and suffering that comes with poverty to the strength that binds family and friends together… photographs can express anything you want to.
And in the process of learning this language, photography will make you a better person too. This is something we can discuss in person whenever you happen to meet me and enjoy a cup of hot coffee on a cool winter evening.