That a picture speaks more than a thousand words, everyone has heard that. And when digital age meets social media, everyone and their cousin speak a thousand pictures.
In my years studying and working in marketing I had the front row seat to see a powerful scene or shot pointedly delivered a message, just as a strong tagline copy could. One of my favorite TVCs is of Volvo, dated back to the late 1990s. The 60-second TVC had a Volvo driving around past children playing in a park, newlyweds, business folks and other typical milestones in life, and reflected those dreamy images to the car door, letting viewers to form impression further on their mind. There was no voiceover and only at the last frame viewers would actually see the car, but the message had been planted—that Volvo was for life.
It doesn’t mean copy editors should now switch careers to become graphic designers. Words, in text or voice, always lend context to ground an image, especially images that can be interpreted in multiple or conflicting nuances, or images that are in danger of looking generic. Still on ads, my all-time favorites is Phillips tagline for Indonesian market “Terus terang Phillips terang terus” that is a genius wordplay to cement how long lasting its light bulbs are (because, really, there’s only so many ways to film hardworking bulbs).
In these days of digital age and social media, images are no longer exclusive to the professionals. Anyone can snap an image or record a scene, and upload it for the world to see and react through Like, Repost or Comment buttons. I know an artist who loves to tease his photographer friends how their profession is rapidly eroded by anyone with a good camera-built smartphone and a decent sense of composition. Sounds kind of cruel, but as someone who’s been spending more and more time on Pinterest and Instagram in the past few months I find myself agreeing to him to some extent.
Okay, okay, you Leica-wielding pros out there, don’t throw your tripods at me just yet. I know very well how professionally taken images, still or moving, will triumph over amateur shots on lighting, composition, color, angle and a myriad of technicalities. But you all must agree that one thing no fancy gadget can substitute, for it lies solely on the human being behind the gadget, and thus the leveling field for pros and amateurs, is the ability to capture a moment. A moment that, given its context, delivers the message.
And I guess that’s what inherently has driven us social beings in droves to image-sharing social media realm, to peek at other people’s moments and share ours in return. Self-pictures have been such on the rage that ‘selfie’ made it to Oxford Dictionary last year and opened the market for monopods (cheekily named tongsis, short for narcissistic stick, by Indonesians). To spread joy, duly notify, find similar interests, vent, gloat, mock or parade—motives to share are as plenty as the nooks and crannies a human heart can hold times the number of person exist on social media. Human beings’ better intention has gotten eco and anti-violence digital campaigns viral, while our darker side is perhaps best illustrated by silly celebrities posting banal feeds and people making conscious decision to follow just to laugh at those antics.
From cave drawings, stone carvings and relief on temples’ walls in ancient times to papyrus, canvas and tapestry paintings in medieval age. From black and white pictures and silent movies of previous century to the digital visuals of this millennium. Images are getting more lifelike and used more often to send messages by us, to us, about us and among us. When released openly to public, and how easy to do that these days, images often transcend language or cultural barriers. Yet, as every private grumble or public kerfuffle about released images has consistently shown, it is the context that makes all the difference.
A selfie is just another spur of the moment, unless it’s taken during a solemn funeral. A soldier shown holding a torched holy book may have been interpreted as a grave insult if it’s not explained that he was saving it from a burned building. Nude shots between consenting adults are private matter, but sent to a client one has a crush on might singlehandedly ruins one’s professional life. First Ladies taking up photography make a boring photo-op, but First Ladies shown busily snapping pictures when visiting disaster victims or while State Palace is on fire create a watershed character image.
Digital era has arrived with a big bang. Not to participate in it means to fully commit oneself as a Luddite (in which, if you choose to be, no judgment from me). But for the rest of us mortals out here, you’d do well to remember it is you who have the last hand in providing context to whatever it is the image you happen to control its release to the world, before it takes a life of its own and speaks its thousand words.