Writers often praise the power of words, but images are equally powerful. Ironically, I write here of the wonder and power of photos without including images. Yet, for all who read newspapers and magazines or watch TV news and documentaries, the photos and videos from those reports remain vivid in memory for years.
Once again, I have been glued to the TV, not to simply hear the reports but to see images of events half a world away. Videos of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, and of the haunting faces of victims and rescuers, dominate screens in our living rooms. We survey flattened homes and watch communities being swept out to sea. Photos document vehicles floating and destroyed. They show us overturned ships, as well as nuclear power stations that have stood tall, little hinting of the hazard they hold, and then exploding to contaminate air and soil.
I treasure words, but the photos and video carry me to the centre of the tragedy. Certainly, earlier images from Japan impacted the world. Who can forget photos and films of the mushroom cloud after the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan at a time when it was a threat to the Allies? The era during which we live most definitely affects how we respond to images from the past, but whatever our responses, the world comes into our homes through published images, television, films and video.
Through photos, the landscape and experiences of others become more real to me. New Orleans is no longer simply about Mardi Gras and the French Quarter. Egypt and Libya are no longer settings for ancient history, but lands filled with contemporary people struggling to restructure their societies.
The day of the 9/11 tragedies, I was mesmerized by TV videos of toppling buildings, people jumping from office towers, terrorized New Yorkers fleeing on city streets, and firemen entering burning, unstable buildings.
Television has brought us haunting images from Haiti. At Christmas in 2004, I awoke to a TV video of the tsunami that devastated Thailand and Sri Lanka. I will always remember the photo of the crying, half-naked child running down the street during the Viet Nam War. The young man in Tiananmen Square facing the tank as it rolled down the street is unforgettable, and images from other civil and world wars have left me feeling distraught.
Outstanding Canadian photos help us relive our own past, too. Karsh’s portraits documented the famous from around the world, but most young Canadians know nothing of him. In video and still-life images, we watched Terry Fox, his face filled with pain and struggle as he ran across Canada. But for me, those photos “spoke louder than words” about the determination, dedication and bravery of youth.
Of course, joyful images are worth a thousand words, too. How lucky we are that someone’s funniest home video can have us howling but not at the moon. Often, it is the antics of animals or children that make us laugh until we cry. Whatever their subjects, I appreciate the work of the amateur and professional photographers, videographers and cinematographers who bring the world into my living room.