Are pictures really worth 1,000 words?

A boy with a camera

When I was fourteen, my Math teacher gave our class a warning: if any of us were to make a ruckus or cause trouble in class, we would be subjected to a 2,000 word essay discussing our disobedient actions.

However, he then proceeded to tell a story about one such student tasked with the 2,000 word essay: according to him, the student handed up a piece of paper with one picture adorning the front and another on the back. Apparently, the student took “a picture is worth 1,000 words” literally, and decided to act upon that belief.

To this day, I’ve wondered what the pictures could have possibly been.

But it does ask an important question, does it not? Because if pictures are really worth 1,000 words, then why don’t we accept pictures in place of 2,000 word essays?

Well, let’s tackle the core question first: are pictures actually worth 1,000 words?

Quite frankly, if you had asked me ten years ago (yes, I would have been six, but imagine if I had been 16 ten years ago) if pictures were worth 1,000 words, I might have said yes.


Well, nowadays, selfies and cat images dominate the web, and I think I will have to say no. The majority of pictures aren’t worth that many words. Maybe they’re worth 140 characters, but certainly not 1,000 words.

While I don’t think that pictures are generally worth 1,000 words, I do think that some pictures are worth that amount, or even more. Photography, like painting or drawing, is an art, and one can provoke much thought with a well-taken photograph. I’ve been inspired to write stories based on paintings and photographs, and so have many other writers, so obviously photographs must generate a little more than 1,000 words of thought. So yes, some pictures are “worth 1,000 words”.

But of course, now we come to another question we have to tackle: is it even a fair comparison?

For me, amazing photography has given me plenty of ideas. But then again, so has carefully chosen words. Just look at the six word story genre, including this story commonly attributed to Hemingway: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” That certainly generated a lot of thought for me.

So here’s a thought, or a question: are stories worth 1,000 pictures? (Or how about 1,000,000? Maybe we could make a movie using those pictures.)

Well, not really. Either way. Let me explain.

There are plenty of artistic mediums: photography, film, writing, art and a host of other things. And trying to mimic the meaning and feelings one medium generates in another medium is almost always a pain. (Just look at books turned into movies.) Trying to say definitive things like, “a picture is worth 1,000 words” is like saying “an apple is worth 1,000 doughnuts”. Yes, both are delicious, and yes, the apple is probably healthier, but no, it’s not exactly a good comparison. In fact, it’s rather silly for some, given that you’ll probably get more calories from 1,000 doughnuts.

No, unlike last time, I’m not suggesting that this saying be trashed. I mean, I still agree with it somewhat. A picture can say 1,000 words, but not often. Again, a sentence can project 1,000 images, but again, not often.

So if you’re taking anything out from this, well, here’s the main point: a picture is not necessarily worth 1,000 words, and in fact, it often isn’t, because if it was, I’d have posted half a picture instead of doing all this writing.

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