Does Every Picture Tell a Story?

Pictures are a very emotive media, in whatever form, and everyone responds to them differently. Children love story books with pictures. It’s often our first way of learning, but do pictures always tell a story?

Look at this photograph for example. What does it suggest to you? What emotions does it evoke?

Graffitti  in Brighton, Photo: A.K.Andrew

Photo: A.K.Andrew

Who sprayed the graffiti? What’s the story behind the image? Is the person throwing a the molotov cocktail or just a beer bottle? Who came later and painted the red? (It was added a week after the original image had been sprayed.)

Does the mural below evoke the same emotions as the graffiti of  the bottle thrower?

Deco Mural, Photo: A.K.Andrew

Women’s restroom Mural, Photo: A.K.Andrew

They’re both wall paintings, but entirely different in content and execution.The effect they have will reflect that difference, no matter what you think of them as individual images.

I was a painter before I was a writer so I respond to images very well. Leora Wenger makes an interesting comparison between the two in her recent post What Artists and Writers Share in Common. But irregardless of our artistic or scientific inclinations, we all have some response or other to visual imagery guided by our personalities and life experience. A drawing of a favorite cartoon character might fill you with nostalgia, or it could simply make you laugh.You might think everyone would smile at golden sunsets right? Wrong. It could evoke a sad memory or be perceived as too schmaltzy – a fuzzy Hallmark moment.

Artists of all types use images to get inspired and marketers use them to sell products. But they’re not always what they appear. Take a look at this image below. A jellyfish?

Victorian glass models: Portuguese man-of-war

(Photo credit: MuseumWales)

It’s actually an intricate antique glass model of a Portuguese Man-of-War (Physalia arethusa)  The ‘float’ is about 55mm wide by 90mm long. Total height: 240mm. There are about two hundred tentacles made of thin coloured glass, supported and attached by fine copper wires. So things are not always as they seem.

Whatever reason you’re writing, the chances are you want to evoke a particular emotion in your readers, whether it’s appreciation of  a new product,  to create empathy for the issue you’re sharing, or stirring a call to action behind a social or political problem. Maybe you’re writing a love story, or trying to create a dystopia in which there’s a shortage food or oil. Perhaps the landscape has been changed by time or natural disaster. Looking at the imagery in a particular photograph, drawing or painting, can trigger an emotion we want to pass on to our readers, and helps us choose the right words to convey what we want to say.

Painting by A.K.Andrew

Painting by A.K.Andrew

If you’re a blogger  or producing a catalog, you can break up a long section of text or literally illustrate what you’re talking about. Susan Cooper does this beautifully in her blog Either way, give the reader a break. Give people an alternative way to look at the subject. Communication can often be more effective when more than one media is a play at the same time. I’ve explored this a little in my Musemedium posts.

English: picture of a print of "Raven Rel...

English: picture of a print of “Raven Releasing the Sun”, by Todd Baker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever your reason for using images, my question still stands. Does every picture tell a story?  Generally speaking I think people  like stories. No matter if bedtime stories are happy, scary or sad, they play an important part in our early lives. Many cultures use story-telling to pass down traditions and myths from one generation to another. In modern media that same tradition is being repeated, only in a different way. Now, for the most part, we look to moving images to spell things out for us.

Over to you. What do you think? Does every picture tell a story? Is the need to tell a story inherent in our makeup,  as well as a source of inspiration? Or is a picture sometimes just a picture?


An illustration of a character from a story; a...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Come join the discussion. Please leave your comments or share on your favorite social media.

Many Thanks!

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  1. Thank you so much for the mention!

    Images can mean different things to different people. Your bottle thrower might be a teenage delinquent, a rebel with a cause, or a terrorist. Or maybe it’s a composition of grays and blacks with red lines and action.

    Often, a person is more apt to read a post with an image – maybe it’s because they want to find out more, or maybe they just find it attractive, so the text might be attractive to read as well.

    Provocative ideas, A.K.!
    Leora recently posted..Interview with Business Owner of Printing CompanyMy Profile

    • You’re very welcome Leora:-) I really enjoy the prospect of images being different things to different people. Interpretation is such an important part of art in general I think. Definitely images liven up a bit of text, however good and I’m interested in the psychology behind it too. Thanks so much for your comment. Always good to see you here.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  2. Pictures are a necessity today. Everything you say is correct. I also think that we are mow taking this one step further in to vlogging – short but sweet. We have very short attention spans these days. We like instant gratification with little effort.
    Geek Girl recently posted..Motivational Monday 3/18My Profile

  3. Thanks for this post and illustrating it with so many interesting images. I love your own landscape (where?) beautiful colours and shapes. Because our response to images is so personal, influenced by experience as well as visual perception they can be wonderful writing prompts & I used a picture of a striking sculpture (a blue man) in the writing exercise I set on my blog this morning by coincidence.
    (Girl with a Pearl Earring just came to mind as a major serious work…although it didn’t float my boat to be honest).
    There is a special word for writing inspired by painting but I can’t think of it – have you come across it?

    • Good to see you Bridget:-) So glad you enjoyed the post. I did the painting after a trip to Northern New Mexico up by Taos, which is near Georgia O’Keefe country. Amazing place, and I felt very affected by it. Even considered moving there at one point.
      I completely agree that images are excellent writing prompts – how coincidental you should use it on your post today.
      Girl With a Pearl Earring is a fabulous novel from a visual standpoint, which is I think why I liked it, despite the plight of the protagonist. I can’t think of the word you’re looking for but I’ll try & find it. Thanks so much for your comment. (BTW your award blog is my next post, written and waiting. Will be up in 2 weeks). Thanks so much for your comment.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  4. Aw, I could write a book about this subject. As a dyslexic, pictures/art were my greatest form of communicating a subject. I often found it easier to draw what I was feeling or wanting to say then to put it into written form.

    Thank you my friend for the shout-out. 🙂
    Susan Cooper recently posted..Guest Post By Jon Jefferson/Guinness Irish Stout: BeerMy Profile

    • You’re welcome to the mention Susan:-) Art & pictures are obviously a subject dear to my heart too. It’s too bad that educators don’t place more attention on visual communication though at least now it’s recognized as an alternative way to learn in certain circumstances. With social media, and electronic media in general then there has been a dramatic shift in the use of images across a broad spectrum. Lucky for us eh?
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  5. Pictures (paintings, photos, sketches what have you) are a major source for material for me. Though I personally have great difficulty when it comes to that medium, I find great inspiration for words through it.

    I used to play text based muds (multi user dungeons, these are as geeky as you can get). This was the massive online games before computers became sophisticated enough to allow extreme graphics. A text mud forces you to build the visuals of the game in your head, just like a book. This means that your mind and imagination are getting a major work out. They also were much more personal touching your psyche in a deeper way than pictures. You could picture it as the difference between reading a book or watching a movie.

    When we were able to go to more graphically intensive video games the text muds began to die out. The graphics made gaming much more approachable by everyone. (It is plausible that we can thank Everquest for bringing girls and women into gaming)

    As a side note (I don’t want to go too far off topic but it is an interesting thought) We find many groups complaining about the objectification in the graphics of games. But when you look at the origins, it is those same graphics that brought girls and women into the gaming community. Before games became so visually impactful it was almost unheard of for girls to play games.

    Maybe the visual arts are a double edged sword?
    Jon Jefferson recently posted..Top 10 MoviesMy Profile

    • Thanks so much for your comment Jon – you certainly bring some interesting and complex ideas about it to the table. I’m not a gamer myself, but the way you described the process is quite fascinating I have to say. As to the subject of girls and women involved in the gaming community I think it’s more likely that it’s the computer industry that is the double edged sword rather than visuals per se. Even now, despite some leveling of the playing field ,it is still an industry dominated by men, but then perhaps I too am going off subject now. I totally love the phrase ‘muds’. Thanks for stopping by:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  6. Good and true article AK.

    Cheryl is right that the importance of pictures, preferably simple ones that convey only one message, is increasing rapidly in today’s online world.

    Were looking at Swedish advertising companies’ websites recently. Far too much text and not enough images. You need to quickly grab someone’s attention online because the likelyhood of anyone starting to read a long text without illustration is slim. Was amazed that advertising companies still get away with too much text. Or do they? Haven’t had a look at their accounting.
    Catarina recently posted..Could your visual presentations be better?My Profile

    • Thanks Catarina. I knew we’d be on the same page on this one. Speed is def. the order of the day.It’s absolutely bizarre that an advertising company would be so alienated from imagery. Isn’t that what advertising is all about?
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  7. A picture is never just a picture. Each of us brings our own set of subjective experiences that we use to read what we will into a photograph. Plus, pictures can be infinitely manipulated, making us ever more aware of how tenuous a grasp that can ever be had on reality, and yet we all press on and try to capture bits and pieces of that reality as we know it, whether our attempts be with words or images, or both.
    Jeri recently posted..Short Story Spotlight: Learn by ExampleMy Profile

    • I agree Jeri. I’ve long been a believer that part of the artistic experience is the reaction of the viewer – same with a novel actually. As you say, throw in image manipulation and it’s all incredibly tenuous. Which is fine. Things don’t have to be permanent. Sand paintings, can be truly beautiful, but only last sometimes for a few brief moments. it’s what we take away with us from the experience that’s the most important part.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  8. Allowing the viewer to bring their own interpretation into play is part of creating a wonderful dynamic between your content and their perceptions. Images invite the exchange. This conversation reminds me of an experience my husband had a few years ago. He’s a graphic designer and was art directing a photo shoot for a document company that created forms. They wanted to promote the hundreds of forms they produced. As you can imagine, pictures of documents are hardly awe inspiring, so the photographer and my husband worked on doing all kinds of things with saturated color, light filtered through vials filled with coloured water, artistic placement and shadow etc. Not long into the process the client came to the shoot and got very concerned because the title of all of the forms were not easily visible in the photos. Now remember, they did hundreds of forms. Eventually the client was told that they could have a picture worth a thousand words or they could have a picture of a thousand words.

    By the way, I love your beautiful landscape painting, it’s definitely worth more than a thousand words.
    Debra Yearwood recently posted..A Simple Lesson About Brand Taught By DisneyMy Profile

    • Thank you so much Debra. What a fabulous compliment! And that is also a fantastic story, and so apropos. I hope the client appreciated what you were trying to do. The interplay between the viewer and the work is essential I think, and as I said to Jeri is, for me an essential part of the experience. It’s interesting that you say images invite exchange. That’s how I feel now, having been a painter for 20 yrs. But prior to that, I used to hate it when people would ask me what I thought of their paintings. It’s a skill to learn as well as to be enjoyed. Go with your gut is usually the best advice I think. Otherwise one can get caught up in what should be said. So glad you stopped by Debra:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  9. I think every picture does tell a story because when we look at pictures we want to figure out what it is and what the story behind it is. We are just naturally curious that way, and that is what has made the human race so successful.

    Abstract pictures especially catch my attention. I just want to know what it is or what I can see in it.
    Shaun recently posted..What To Do When Someone Doesn’t Want To Be Your Friend AnymoreMy Profile

    • I think you’re right Shaun. We do have a natural curiosity that for some then goes beyond one’s own imagination and on into storytelling.
      I also love abstract art, though ironically I find half the fun is simply noticing one’s emotional reaction. When I try and think ‘what does it mean?’ -that’s when I get tied up in knots. Thank so much for stopping by:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  10. Being more a visual person I love seeing pictures or images and it is up to you entirely what you get out of it. One person I know showed an image of an old cartoon character and it was in the expression and surrounding that you could see a story in it. Back to your question about images and story I think perhaps artist have a story that want to portray but sometimes it is too complicated for the audience to understand.
    Susan Oakes recently posted..There Are Always Two Sides To ConsiderMy Profile

    • It is up to the viewr what they get out of an image, and that can change from day to day with a viewers mood. That’s a great point you make that an image can be resolved by what it’s next to. that’s often the case in novels too where one character is played off another.
      Sometimes it is too hard for the audience to understand the intention of the artist, but I think it’s OK if the the interpretation is not what the artist had in mind. Thanks so much for your comment Susan:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  11. You can create pictures out of words. Use imagery and metaphors if you don’t have actual images to illustrate a point. As in “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” — Marcel Proust
    Jeannette Paladino recently posted..Use Mobile Technology to Engage Your Customers, or Bye-ByeMy Profile

  12. I do think that every image tells a story, but a different one to each person because the way we view them is subjective and personal. I really like the topic of this post and think its interesting to hear people ‘s thoughts on it. Also love that you highlighted so many great bloggers, and from our LinkedIn group! I do believe we inherently feel the need to tell stories in whatever way we feel, even through art and images.
    Kelly Wade recently posted..How to Bounce Back from a Break-UpMy Profile

    • Thanks so much Kelly. I’ve loved how everyone has really put our their thoughts on this one. I agree with you that images both tell a story and that it’s personal for everyone. And that’s a good thing as it’s this difference is partly what makes us interesting. Thanks for stopping by:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  13. Sometimes a picture can convey something that you as the photographer were totally unaware of. I’m thinking of an ad I saw in the paper this morning of a man with a quizzical look on his face, selling a product. Nothing so unusual there, I thought, until I became aware of a painting on the wall behind the man which I believe the photographer had not seen. In the painting a woman seems to be peeking around the man’s head, and sticking her tongue in his ear!!
    Larry Crane recently posted..Trauma Sets Female Veterans Adrift Back HomeMy Profile

    • That’s hilarious Larry. Sometimes even people with a good eye, like a photographer can miss things. Part of one’s level of observance effects the end result of an image and then it has a completely different effect than it might have had on someone else. Life is often in the eye of the beholder rather than being black and white. Thanks for your comment
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  14. I think pictures do tell a story whether the viewer is aware of it or not. The picture tells the story of the creator–why they created it and the emotions they had behind it. And it tells the story of the interpreter–what has happened in their lives to make them interpret a picture a certain way. I personally love visuals and I use them as inspiration to write. I like to take a picture, generally one that is rather clear on the subject matter, and use it to base a short story off of. For example, I once took a picture of a man carrying a rabbit through a flood and wrote a short fiction piece about it. Finding pictures like this are a great way to find a prompt to help me write.
    Mary Slagel recently posted..5 Vital Moves for a Successful RetirementMy Profile

    • Good point you make about the the creator of the image. I sometimes focus too much on the interpretation , which as you say is also important. What an amazing image you captured. It definitely has fiction written all over it so to speak. Like you I really enjoy using pictures as inspiration. Thanks for the comment Mary.
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  15. I love the question. i don’t think every picture tells a story. Some just evoke an emotion. I have an artist friend who came over when I was writing my first book and I was struggling to create a graphic that represented the industries that hired computer professionals. I had six circles around a large circle and each circle had a word in it, representing the industry. She said, move aside, and created a lovely graphic, which I used in the book that had icons for each industry. I love artists.
    Carol Covin recently posted..Green Fractions. Fun with Grandchildren.My Profile

    • I think that pictures can just evoke emotions and a lot of the end result is really in the interpretation. Clearly you’re a very visual person too, and how fantastic to have an artist come and work on your graphic for you.Thanks so much for stopping by:-)
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  16. I believe images usually evoke emotions. At the very least, they grab your attention. Some of the most beautiful and thought provoking photography that I have seen has been black and white. I can’t imagine not using some sort of images on any website be it photography, illustrations, graphics or whatever. I tend to use graphics rather than photography myself. It has set the tone of my blog. The other two sites that you mentioned, Leora’s and Susan’s are great examples of sites that incorporate photography and illustrations.

    Great post A.K.!
    Sherryl Perry recently posted..Does Your Social Media Strategy include Twitter Direct Messages?My Profile

  17. That’s a good point about setting the tone of your website Sherryl. It’s important to be consistent, even if it’s a question of being varied. But as images do evoke emotions, then as bloggers we need to be careful that they’re sending the message that we want, allowing for individual interpretation. Thanks for your comment:-)
    A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  18. This was great! I believe that a picture is not just a picture. Regardless of what it is, it will evoke some sort of emotional reaction. Whenever I have looked at a picture, some idea or story about that picture always fills my mind. Sometimes, it just starts with a personal emotional reaction but then it transforms into some sort of story. This is an intriguing topic because everyone reacts to pictures differently. That is what I find so interesting.

  19. As a paid corporate trainer using PowerPoint, I use as few slides as possible to support my message and half of those slides have – pictures, photos or graphs. While pictures do tell a story, so do words so they have equal weight in my opinion as we blog, give a presentation or deliver a sales proposal.
    Patricia Weber recently posted..Are You an Introvert Who is Ignoring Your Unfair Advantage in Public Speaking, Even Sales?My Profile

  20. I think that’s definitely a valid point in terms of blogging. Visuals can liven up a Power Point presentation, but certainly the written word is essential in other circumstances. Thanks for stopping by Pat:-)
    A.K.Andrew recently posted..Does Every Picture Tell a Story?My Profile

  21. Yes, I agree with your point. Andrew’s painting is nicely mentioned. Thanks for the post. A good read!!
    Jesna recently posted..Still Life Oil Paintings By Carlo RussoMy Profile