Images, Words, and Time
Time and Life Building
New York, NY
June 1, 2004
Dear Mr. Kelly:
I read with interest your editorial of May 31, 2004 called "Brokering the Power of the Image." You indeed bare a colossal responsibility for the images you select and reproduce for the masses of souls you influence every week.
Let me give you another perspective on the matter. Some things should not be seen—not merely the extremely gruesome things, but indecent things that do not befit the dignity of human beings (which I believe bear the likeness of God). For example, those who jumped to their deaths from the Twin Towers should not have been photographed. Neither they nor their families would want them to be seen dying in this hideous way. Decency looks away. Some things should not be seen. The same insight applies to the burned bodies of the American contractors in Iraq. This inhumane event should be described, discussed, denounced, and reflected on, but not seen. St. Augustine ruminated on this in The Confessions, Book X, where addresses curiosity as a vice, a sin. He speaks of the urge to see a "mangled corpse," even though it gives no pleasure. That is an indecent thing—to gape at a mutilated dead body. (Augustine does not have funeral visitations in mind—a very different situation.)
I am from Littleton, Colorado, home of Columbine High School. When the demonic apocalypse struck in 1999, reporters were immediately on the scene shoving cameras and microphones into the faces of traumatized teen-agers just minutes after they barely escaped the carnage with their lives. This should have not been done. A friend emailed me from England aghast. She wrote, "Here they would never allow the reporters to accost these children with cameras and microphones." But in America, we must have the images—at all costs, no matter the impropriety or the indecency.
Moreover, images, which dominate American and most western media, are very limited in what they can communicate concerning truth. They cannot directly convey propositions, but instead evoke emotions. Yes, some are telling and unforgettable, such as the photography of the young Vietnamese girl running naked in the streets after being napalmed. But for all their poignancy, images may mislead or overwhelm without informing or educating at a deep level. This image-saturation (if not image-mongering) has lead to the pandemic debasement of intellectual discourse in our country.
Compare the text-to-word ratio of a Time Magazine (or Newsweek) from 1950 to that of today. I reckon that the May 31, 2004 issue of Time had roughly a 50/50 ratio of images to text. The 1950 issue would be dominated by text, not images. But today we are no longer typological society (see Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, on this), eager to wrestle meaning from texts over time. This move away from the text and toward the image (whether stationary or moving) cheapens discourse and fosters intellectual impatience. We think the pictures tell the story when, in fact, they can (at best) tell only half the story. The moral imagination is better served by careful and nuanced descriptions in words than by a raft of images.
Malcolm Muggerridge (a distinguished British journalist) was close to the truth when he said in Christ and the Media, "The camera always lies." As a Christian, I don’t take it to be an accident that God gave us a Book (really 66 varied books) and no photography. Moreover, the Second Commandment (Exodus, chapter 20) warns us to not make images of God. That by itself should serve as a general warning as to their limitations (as Postman notes). For a masterful study of this reality, see Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Eerdmans, 1985). Daniel Boorstin’s classic, The Image (1961) treats the same general subject with great insight as well.
Mr. Kelly, I hope you will consider these points as you reflect on your role as a public gatekeeper.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.,
Professor of Philosophy